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Archive for the ‘NYRB Classics’ Category

2016 was an entirely adequate year for me.  I earned my first professional designation after three years of hard work and study, went on some great trips (though, having stayed in North America all year, I really did miss my usual visit to Europe), and, the crucial difference from 2015, none of my loved ones died or seriously injured themselves.  Well done us!

And, of course, there were lots of books.  Here are the best of the best:

books-310. The Lark (1922) – E. Nesbit
This charming story of two young women and their attempts to support themselves is featuring on a lot of “Best of” lists this year and rightly so. And the best news is that it will be reprinted and easily available as of March 2017, thanks to Scott!

9. More Was Lost (1946) – Eleanor Perényi
An interesting and entertaining memoir about life in Central Europe in the late 1930s from a young American woman married to a Hungarian nobleman.

8. Classic German Baking (2016) – Luisa Weiss
Simply put, this is the cookbook I have been longing for all my life. The Christmas chapter alone – heck, just the recipe for Basler Brunsli cookies – would have been enough to earn it a spot on this list. As it is, the other chapters are equally wonderful.

books-27. Lassoing the Sun (2016) – Mark Woods
I feel rather guilty that I didn’t get around to writing about this wonderful book. A journalist based in Florida, Woods set out to spend a year visiting twelve of America’s national parks. Not the necessarily most beautiful or the most popular ones, but “each symbolizing a different issue facing the national parks in the next hundred years.”  A fascinating project, but not the heart of what the year evolved into, as Woods’ mother passed away after a short and fierce illness.  His travels are tied up with his mourning for his mother, his lifelong memories of visiting the parks with his family, and the urge to share that same sense of wonder and discovery with his own daughter.  Really very wonderful and touching.

6. The House by the Dvina (1984) – Eugenie Fraser
This memoir of Fraser’s childhood in Russia (before, during and immediately after the Revolution) is richly and wonderfully told, taking you deep into a close-knit family and a vanished world. It feels very Slightly Foxed-esque and I can only hope it’s on their radar for possible reissue.

5. Terms and Conditions (2016) – Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Speaking of Slightly Foxed, this wonderful history of girls’ boarding schools is one of the most amusing and original books I’ve read in years.

books-14. Saturday’s Child (1914) – Kathleen Thompson Norris
I first read this novel in 2015 and loved it then too but I think it made an even bigger impact on rereading. The perfect dose of both commiseration and inspiration at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed and indulging, like the heroine, in a bit too much “woe is me”-ing and not enough productive action. It’s deeply reassuring to know that a hundred years ago young working women felt exactly the same way I do in 2016.

3. Children of Earth and Sky (2016) – Guy Gavriel Kay
The newest release from the master of historical fantasy, I loved this so much I read it twice this year.

2. To the Bright Edge of the World (2016) – Eowyn Ivey
A magical, enthralling tale of an 1880s expedition into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Beautifully told and deeply satisfying to read, I keep pressing everyone I know to try it.

new-i-was-a-stranger-bunkerbooks1. I Was a Stranger (1977) – General Sir John Hackett
In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish.  A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.

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More Was LostI woke up early this morning to finish reading More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi.  In 1937, the American Eleanor was travelling in Europe with her mother when she met her future husband, Zsiga Perényi, a minor Hungarian nobleman almost twice her age (not difficult when you are still in your teens).  After a brief courtship, they married and returned to the Perényi family home in Hungarian lands that had been given over to Czechoslovakia after the First World War (lands that are now part of the Ukraine).

One of the guiding rules for the women of my family is that you do not marry Hungarians.  Especially aristocratic ones as they are inevitably impoverished.  They may be romantic and dramatic, but they inevitably morph into morose depressives with a penchant for attempting to kill and/or further bankrupt themselves (see Sunflower, another NYRB Classics reprint).   I can’t say this has been a pressing concern in my life so far but it is excellent advice nonetheless and has steered other women in my family out of the path of danger.  Clearly, no one had ever thought to pass this advice on to Perényi.

It is a fascinating world that the young Baroness Perényi finds herself in.  Not the shallow artificial whirl of Budapest society but a deeply rural hamlet where feudalism is still the preferred way of life for both peasants and masters.  The first half of the book follows Perényi as she settles in her new home, making her mark on the family’s castle (really more of a large house, in the way of most Central Europe castles), studying Hungarian (to the disapproval of both nobles and peasants, who  view this adaptability as disappointingly middle class), and learning to run both the castle and the estate, with the help of the family’s various servants.  It is not a difficult life by any means and Perényi has great fun for several years, gossiping with the steward, redecorating the castle, and meeting her husband’s marvellously colourful friends and relatives.  Modesty and reserve, she soon learned, were not Hungarian virtues:

In the conversation there was constant interruption.  Nobody seemed to listen very attentively to what anyone else was saying.  Also no one dreamed of trying not to talk about himself all the time, and setting forth his ideas with great care.  There was a phrase which literally meant “I am so with this thing.”  Or in other words, “This is the way I feel about it” – and I heard it all the time.

Coming from hardworking America – and witnessing daily the efficiency of the Czech-run state in which she lived – Perényi was somewhat baffled by the Hungarian aversion to work.  Her comments on this were some of my favourite passages in the entire book:

No one in Hungary is interested in business, and most Hungarians are certainly not very good at it in any case.  After the last war, a good many members of the nobility had to go to work.  They were fantastically inefficient, and it was not entirely lack of training.  There was really no excuse for the inability to cope with practical affairs that most of them showed.  It was simply that they despised business because it was middle-class.  The peasants, too, looked down on commerce.  And as everyone seemed to be either a noble or a peasant, business and the professions were gratefully turned over to the Jews.  So, of course, were the arts.

Let’s be honest: the most enjoyable aspect of this book, for me, were all of the comments about the the efficiency of Czech bureaucrats and the general useless of Hungarians.  I believe the book should be subtitled “Ways in Which Czechs are Better than All Other Central Europeans”.  As this is pretty much the theme of my life, it was very gratifying.  Perényi clearly had a soft spot for the Czechs, who were nowhere near as romantic or appealing as the Hungarians, but whose roads were passable, border guards efficient, and policies fair to all citizens.

In the second half of the book, the war intrudes.  From the Munich Crisis in 1938 to 1940, when, pregnant and at her husband’s urging, she left Europe to return to America with her parents, Perényi bounced around Europe, seeing the action unfold from Budapest, their country estate (whose location – in terms of what country – was in flux), Paris (where her father was working), the south of France, and Italy.  It is less cohesive or original than the first half but fascinating nonetheless.

This is very much a young woman’s book.  Perényi was only in her late teens and early twenties in the years she describes and still only twenty-eight when the book was published in 1946.  She is happy to be the charming American girl who married a handsome man and went to live in a castle, rather than a political commentator and it shows.  Perényi is far better at chronicling her delight with her new husband, 20th Century feudalism, and Hungarian country gentry than she is at contextualizing her place in a world tearing itself apart.  She wanted a simple love story and the world gave her a war instead.

It is no wonder then that, when she sat down a few years later to write this book, she used it to mourn what she had lost: a home, a way of life, and so many beloved people – some of whom were by then dead, some of whom lived but she despaired of ever seeing again, and some of whom, like her husband, had drifted too far away to ever return to the old intimacies.

 

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One of the joys of being a book blogger is being aware of such a huge variety of titles.  I must read or at least skim reviews for a hundred different books every week, an alarming number of which go straight onto my TBR list.  And I find that really exciting but, at the same time, being well-educated about a book before reading it means that I’m rarely surprised by what I read.  I’m used to enjoying and appreciating books but I can usually anticipate how I’m going to feel well before I start the book, just based on what certain other bloggers have thought of it.  There’s a comfort to that and it never impairs my enjoyment as a reader but I sometimes miss the sheer delight of starting a wonderful book and finding it to be not at all what I had expected.  Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi was just that dash of unexpected brilliance that I’ve been missing lately.  Ironically, for someone who has been going on about loving surprises, this review is full of spoilers.  Be warned.

It is September 1899 in Sárszeg, an unexceptional town in the heart of Austria-Hungary (modeled on Subotica, Kosztolányi’s hometown in what is now Serbia). When the Vakjay’s beloved, spinster daughter Skylark leaves for a week to visit relatives, Mother and Father don’t know quite what to do with themselves.  Their lives revolve around their much loved, ugly, dull daughter and in her absence they find themselves doing the most unexpected things.  They dine out, reconnect with old friends and make new ones, go to the theatre, and Father even attends one of the Panther drinking club’s infamous Thursday nights (which all of Friday is needed to recover from).  It is an inversion of the classic plot of children running wild once adult authority and supervision is removed, but here it is Skylark, the child, whose mild, loving attentions and constant presence at home restricts her parents.

Mother and Father’s adventures are delightfully and very humourously told, particularly the antics of the Panther club and its intoxicated members.  From the moment of Skylark’s departure one Friday to the morning of her return the next, the novel is a charming comedy.  Mother and Father are astonished and intrigued by the love affairs of local actors, amazed by the delicious restaurant food (very different than the light, unspiced, but healthful food Skylark cheerfully prepares at home), and energized by their interactions with the townsfolk.  And through all this, their reactions are wonderful to behold.  No acquaintance goes without comment, no revelation without a full and wondrous appreciativeness.  And the Vakjays are such likeable people that you can’t help but adore them and rejoice with them in their enjoyment.  But they are simple people who for years have had just one simple wish: to see their daughter married.  Every unattached male in town presents a possibility and their hatred of one who once, by walking Skylark home nine years before, briefly gave them cause to hope is complete – and serves as an amusing insight into the Vakjay’s aspirations for Skylark:

He had at one time undoubtedly met with the Vajkay’s highest approval.  They could never have wished their daughter a more appropriate suitor.  They had always dreamed of a decent, homely type who’d wear unironed broadcloth trousers and a painfully knitted brow; who’d sweat a little and blush when he spoke.

But Skylark is now thirty-five, unmarried, and uglier than ever.  For years, the family has gone along, hoping and praying and never speaking of the thing that troubles them most, but finally, in Skylark’s absence, Father stumbles home after a night drinking and unleashes his true feelings, his full anguish to Mother.  Without meaning to, their ugly, unremarkable daughter has drained the joy out of their lives and certainly out of her own.  They have become used to keeping to themselves, eating always at home, and rarely going out to public places, convincing themselves they don’t want to when the truth is that it is painful and embarrassing for Skylark to go.  They all have suffered years and years of disappointments, hoping desperately that someone might come along to marry Skylark, knowing she’s too ugly for anyone to really want to.  And each year her future seems even more grim:

‘Do you know how much she’s suffered?  Only I know that, with this father’s heart of mine.  What with one thing and another.  The continual whispering behind her back, the laughter, the scorn, the humiliation.  And we too, Mother, how much have we suffered?  We waited one year, two years, hoping, as time passed by.  We believed it was all a matter of chance.  We told ourselves things would get better.  But they only got worse.  Worse and worse.’

So, though the Vakjays love their daughter, it is only with her away that they can forget their worries, can live for themselves and indulge in their pleasures without feeling guilty for poor, lonely Skylark.

The situation is so frustrating because no one is truly at fault.  Skylark can hardly be blamed for being ugly or for wanting to stay among family when she knows how strangers and townspeople react to her appearance.  And her parents, who love her above all things, want to make her comfortable and happy, to let her know that she is loved and cherished by them at least.  So they allow themselves to be pulled into this relatively isolated way of life.  Even when Skylark returns, there’s the assumption that their adventures while she was gone will remain secret.  Skylark is helpful and loving, always trying to please everyone and help in any way she can – she is no despot who would ask them to give up the things they love.  Her parents do it willingly, out of love.

The final brilliance of this novel is the switch in the very last scene to Skylark’s perspective.  The rest of the novel is focused on the senior Vakjays, particularly Skylark’s father, and, as I said before, it is generally quite comedic.  But Skylark, even when absent, was always the focus.  The contrast of the week she’s spent against her parents’, of her thoughts once home against her parents’ incandescent joy at having her back is heartbreaking and absolutely the perfect way to end this novel, leaving the reader with as much love for Skylark as for her parents.

Skylark is a novel of rare emotional intelligence, perfectly balancing humour with everyday tragedy.  So many of the novels about spinsters (and there are many, especially if you’re a Virago fan) focus on the woman herself and, honestly, I’ve not ever had a lot of success with those books.  They always seem to have heroines who are subservient to their family’s demands and who meekly try to be of use.  Skylark is useful, yes, but she’s also adored, cherished, and at the very centre of her family.  She seems a world away from those other women and it seems so much more realistic that her problems, her disappointments are as much hers as they are her parents.  Because what is a parent if not the person who loves and cares for you the most, who wants to give you only the happiest of endings and who feels despair and guilt when that does not come?

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I can still vaguely recall the days when I used to review books in a timely fashion, sometimes even within a day or two of finishing them.  My standards have, shall we say, relaxed somewhat since then but I still usually try to write reviews within a week, at most two, of reading the book.  Whoops.  February and March have been interesting months for me, going between intense periods of reading and then weeklong breaks where even picking up the newspaper seemed too onerous.  But I think, I certainly hope, all that is behind me now and I can focus on reviewing some of the books I read over the past two months, beginning with The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori.    

I mentioned this title when I made my reading list for the Eastern European Reading Challenge (and let us take a brief moment to celebrate the fact that I finally read a book that fits into one of my challenges!) though I had very little idea at the time what it was about.  I knew it was a memoir of growing up in Austria-Hungary/Romania by someone with a von-ified Italian surname.  Honestly, that’s all the encouragement I ever need.  Throw in a few photographs (there are several at the beginning of each section) and I’m done for.

Strictly speaking, yes, this is a memoir but really it is von Rezzori telling the life stories of those who surrounded him in his childhood and adolescence.  He is their biographer but also our subject.  Through portraits of five others – his nurse, his mother, his father, his sister, and his governess – von Rezzori tells the story of his family and his early life, a strangely rootless existence begun in Czernowitz (in Austria-Hungary) in 1914.  His homeland eventually became part of Romania and von Rezzori seems to have accepted and love his new country though he was ethnically anything but Romanian.  One of the things I’m always interested to read about in memoirs from this period is the writer’s perspective on the rise of the national socialists in Germany.  This is, after all, a memoir of the inter-war years and what could be more interesting that the views of ethnic and linguistic minorities in the new self-determined states, like Romania? 

From our viewpoint, the developments in Germany were welcome: a profusion of optimistic images of youth bursting with health and energy, promising to build a sunny new future – this corresponded to our own political mood.  We were irked by the disdain with which we as the German-speaking minority were treated, as if the former Austrian dominion in Romania had been one of Teutonic barbarism over the ancient and highly cultured Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks, and Wallachians, as if these had freed themselves from their oppressive bondage in the name of civilizing morality.  The bitterness of the defeat suffered with Germany rankled in us, and we felt good when we saw that in Germany, a new self-reliance refused to accept that a people vanquished was a people despised. (p. 129)

In speaking about those closest to him, or at least those most central to his formative years, von Rezzori considers them not just as people with their own concerns and agendas but as influences on his development.  Cassandra, his peasant nurse, is remembered most affectionately and Bunchy, the family’s governess, with great respect and admiration.  His feelings towards his blood relatives are more conflicted. 

His neurotic, controlling mother inspired little affection in either of her children, preferring to focus on or concoct her own personal dramas.  A quarrelsome, angry woman, she divorced (or at least separated from) two husbands and then cast herself as the victim.  She sounded alarmingly like some of my female relatives, which does little to calm my fears that all Slavic women eventually turn out to be crazy.  Please, if you can find a book that counteracts this theory, send me the title.  Now.  Give me hope for the future.

Von Rezzori is much more sympathetic towards his father, a larger-than-life figure, fond of hunting, drinking and wenching.  He is grand and effusive, full of lust and emotion and is a figure straight out of a comic opera.  I’m a bit in love with him myself.  Father and son weren’t particularly close but it’s clear that von Rezzori adored him and was more than a little jealous of the intensely close bond between his father and his sister.  So much of both the sections on his father and on his sister are taken up discussing their relationship, enviously remembering how easily and affectionately they interacted.  Von Rezzori’s father was not an easy man to get along with, indeed it sounds as though he was quick to offend and slow to apologize, but his daughter was the exception.  Enviously, von Rezzori describes their relationship, in awe of not just the close father-daughter bond but the genuine friendship between the two:

In the case of my sister, the chemistry was right: she was blood of his blood, though quieted by the thinner blood of our mother, and curbed as well by a clear intelligence, similar to his own but more disciplined.  Her love for him was as unconditional as it was luminous.  She would sometimes shake her head at him but laughed as she did so.  In amusement she would follow his scurrilous train of thought, and she always knew what was meant as a joke and what was to be taken seriously.  Her attitude towards his escapades was one of maternal tolerance, and whenever he went too far, she found an outlet for her irritation in the convulsive laughter that shook both of us when we spoke of the vagaries of family life. (p. 170)

Von Rezzori’s emotions towards most of the people in his life are generally straightforward.  Affection for the women who raised him, general disinterest and sympathy for his troubled mother, awe of his father.  Not so with his sister who died age only twenty two.  For me, this is by far the best section of the book; emotional and beautifully written, it is the part where you learn most about von Rezzori himself, about what he feels and thinks and how he became who he is.  It begins with, I think, the most beautifully written passage of the entire memoir:

Now that I write this down, she has been dead for fifty-six years and not one of those years has gone by without her being close to me in an almost corporeal way – not in the abstract sense of a loving preserving memory, but in a well-nigh physical presence, often anything but welcome.  Whatever I do or fail to do, whatever happens to me, observing; at times I even call her to make sure she’s there.  For fifty-six years – a whole life span – there has not been for me a single happy or unhappy moment, neither success nor failure, no significant or even halfway noteworthy occurrence on which she might not have commented.  She is mute but she is there.  My life is a wordless dialogue with her, to which she remains unmoved: I monologize in front of her.  (p. 193)

For such a short life, this chapter is filled with emotion.  It’s restrained but intensely moving.  He seems to have resented her, was clearly jealous of the adoring relationship between her and their father, but all the same he was in awe of her.  Of all his relationships, this was probably the most complicated and therefore the most interesting.  She was, he carefully points out, extraordinary, explaining how years after her death he’d shown some of her writing to a psychologist friend who exclaimed over its maturity and insight, marveling that a young woman of barely twenty could have written with the kind of self-awareness usually seen in those twenty or thirty years her senior.  How, as a younger sibling, do you ever make peace with that?  Most siblings eventually mature and put aside their childhood rivalries in adulthood.  But von Rezzori was still a teenager when his sister died.  They had never been particularly close and they never had the chance to meet each other as equals, to come to respect one another as adults and he remains haunted by her ghost, engaged in a never-ending competition with a woman he hardly knew, who he’ll always feel the need to impress.

My one quibble with his analysis of his sister – indeed, my only issue with the book in its entirety – is his insistence that she belonged to a lost world, to the ordered discipline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that it was her incompatibility with the post-war reality that lead to her death.  This seems like the over-romanticized fantasies of a dreamy boy.  But that’s the thing about memoirs: what’s more important, who the person actually was or who they were to the memoirist?  For von Rezzori, his mother is his mother.  She is referred to by no other name, has no individual self, the same for his father and his sister.  It is always ‘my sister’ or ‘my mother’.  Their actual identity ceases to be important in such instances.  They matter because of how they influenced the writer, however falsely they may be remembered.

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The NYRB Classic edition of The Summer Book by Tove Jansson is described on the back cover as “the essence of summer” and, after reading this delightful slim volume, I can’t disagree.  In fact, as we stumble headlong into August having seen more hail and rain than sun, this seems like the only summer I might experience this year.  But I can’t complain: wouldn’t you rather spend your summers on a Finnish island, exploring and discovering the world around you?

From the opening lines, Jansson paints a vivid picture of life on the island that continues throughout and one can almost smell and feel the scene she creates.  It’s a magical yet still realistic place, the kind you know exists somewhere and would love to find yourself:

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night.  The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened.  Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rain forest of lush, evil leaves and flowers…(p. 5)

The short vignettes dealing with the adventures, games, and minor dramas of six-year-old Sophia and her elderly grandmother are simple but beautifully expressed, capturing the spirit and selfishness of youth as well as the exhaustion and bluntness that comes with age.  Both characters can be delightful, but they are both flawed and far more likeable than their more perfect counterparts that appear in similar (and infinitely lesser) novels.  Flawed characters are so much more loveable, a lesson that Sophia learns in a chapter entitled “The Cat.”

I’ve always been rather intimidated by Scandinavian writers, having the impression that their writing style was stark and rather brutal.  Perhaps this may be true of some authors but certainly not Jansson.  Her writing and stories are straightforward but still gentle and endearing.  There is subtle humour throughout, but generally I’d call the book sweet rather than funny (though “The Crooks” is very amusing).  Exactly the perfect reading for hot summer days, when all you want to do is loll about in the shade with a wonderful, easy book that sweeps you up into a world not your own.

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