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Sunday, 17 August 2014

Twilight of the Eastern Gods


Am I a gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand
Condemned? I made the whole world weep
At the beauty of my land.
Boris Pasternak from ‘Nobel Prize’

This is both an old and an odd book. The copyright says 1978 but its origins date back to 1961 which is when the short story ‘A Summer in Dubulti’ which forms the basis of the first of this novel’s five chapters appeared in print, although the events described date back to the late fifties. Other fragments followed over the next fifteen years which Kadare assembled and buried within a collection along with two other pieces, but even there what was published was not the book I’ve just read. In 1981 a French translation came out and Kadare, according to the English translator David Bellos, “used this opportunity to smuggle back into the novel some of the more forthright passages about girls that had been omitted from the Albanian ‘original’” but please be assured this is no Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which was published in 1959); if memory serves me right our young protagonist has sex once (maybe twice) and there’re no titillating accounts of his night-time gymnastics. Here’s one of the racier bits (or maybe the only racy bit):

Without waiting for a response from her sister [who wants to go for walk in the woods], she took my hand and pulled me towards her bedroom …

Shocking, what? The French version was revised in 1998 and what Canongate has just published is an English translation of that version, not a direct translation from the Albanian. This has been the case with all the novels that are available in English; seven of which that I’m aware of having been handled by Bellos.

In the west we’re so used to freedom of speech that’s it’s really hard to imagine a world where a sentence like that would have to be smuggled into a novel. Maybe in the 1880’s but in the 1980’s? The simple fact is that even today people are being thrown into prison for expressing their opinions on paper. What’s amazing about Kadare is how he managed to survive all these years under the Hoxha regime. It’s not been by kow-towing but it has been by biding his time and picking his battles. So we’ve had to wait a long time to read about Kadare’s youthful experiences at the Gorky Institute of World Literature and how Russia reacted to Pasternak’s being awarded the Nobel Prize. Was it worth the wait? Not really. Now so much is known about the USSR that this is very old news. This doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading but now it’s an historical document. Had it been published in the sixties (even if it had to be smuggled out of Albania and only appeared in the west) people would’ve DrZhivago_Asheetsat up and paid attention. The 1965 film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago was a spectacular box office hit. Can you imagine how people would’ve responded had they learned just how Russia reacted when they learned one of their own was to be awarded the Nobel Prize primarily for this novel although his nomination had been on the cards for years? Even fifty years on it’s upsetting.

But then maybe you don’t know. To be honest I didn’t. The information’s all in Wikipedia. It’s no big secret. But I doubt many people know the full story. Not that we get the full story here. What we get are Kadare’s protagonist’s experiences and, to be honest, he’s a bit too interested in his lacklustre love life to worry about poor old Boris Pasternak and his troubles. He’s astute enough to realise, however, that Pasternak has only two options: refuse the prize or get on a plane to Stockholm and not expect to be allowed back into the country:

On the radio from five a.m. until midnight, on television, in newspapers and magazines and even in children’s comics, the renegade writer was being splattered with venom. As was customary in cases of this kind, the bristling statements of Soviet literati were regurgitated by workers and collective farmers. Newspapers apologised for being able to publish only a minute proportion of the tens of thousands of letters and telegrams pouring in from the four corners of the Soviet lands. Among them were expressions of outrage from oil drillers, drama students, Orthodox priests, Bolshoi ballerinas, mountain climbers, atomic physicists, beekeepers, Caspian Sea salt-rakers, reformed mystics, the mute and so forth. […] Most of the students on our course had also sent in statements and expected to see them in print in due course. One of them was […] Maskiavicius, even though he’d told me the previous day that Pasternak, despite his turpitude, was worth a hundred times more than any of the other runts of Soviet literature.

The thing is Kadare is not a Russian writer. He’s an Albanian and so can view events with some detachment. Being an Albanian may mean little to you or me (most of us couldn’t point to Albania on a map of the world) but there are certain countries around the world where national identity is a big thing, a really big thing, and Albania is one of them. I discovered this when I reviewed the first novel of Kadare’s that I read, The Ghost Rider. It’s a very important novel, too, even though it’s actually a retelling of an old folk tale, the legend of Kostandin and Doruntine. He references it several times in Twilight of the Eastern Gods but unless you’re an Albanian (or have read The Ghost Rider or at the very least my review of the book) its significance will slip by you.

During the fifties young Albanian students were often sent to educational establishments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Soviet aid was generous in those years. But by the late fifties the relationship between the USSR’s new rulers and the Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha (a diehard Stalinist), were cooling and we see evidence in Kadare’s book where the young man’s called to his country’s embassy:

[W]e were urged to limit, as far as we could, all relations with Muscovites for the time being. ‘I mean especially young female Muscovites…’ he added. My heart sank, not so much from what the counsellor had just said but from his having said it without a shadow of a smile. […] ‘You will therefore have to stop dating them,’ he went on, in what sounded to me like a weary voice. He spoke for two more minutes, stressing that relations between the two countries were good, telling us not to be unnecessarily alarmed and especially not to mention any of this to anyone.

Not that the boy pays a blind bit of attention to that advice but then he’s young and stupid. Stupid as far as women goes but in all other respects he can see the writing on the wall.

Possibly the most striking section in the book is where he takes on the mantel of Dante and describes the various floors on the Gorky Institute:

First floor: that’s where the first-year students stay; they’ve not yet committed many literary sins. Second floor: critics, conformists, playwrights, whitewashers. Third … circle: dogmatics, arse-lickers and Russian nationalists. Fourth circle: women, liberals and people disenchanted with socialism. Fifth circle: slanderers and snitches. Sixth circle: denaturalised writers who have abandoned their own language to write in Russian…

In an interview when asked if he was happy during his stay at the institute Kadare responded:

"Yes. Very happy."

But then he catches himself as though he might have given the wrong impression. "I was happy… as a human being. But I was none the less aware that I was in a college that was somehow twisted. The Gorky Institute was a factory for conformist, dogmatic writers and, because I understood that, I was saved."

Gorky Institute

In his Paris Review interview he expands on what he means here when he says he was “saved”:

At the institute I was disgusted by the indoctrination, which in a way saved me. I kept telling myself that on no account must I do what they taught me but the exact opposite. Their official writers were all slaves of the party, except for a few exceptions like Konstantin Paustovsky, Chukovsky, Yevtushenko.

I understand completely where he’s coming from. I recently watched a documentary about the seventies in the UK and it really was a miserable time as far as the country was concerned but I was young and so wrapped up in my own life and loves that I really was only vaguely aware of the bigger picture. In the same interview Kadare admits:

"There was a classmate I had a relatively long affair with—but then I decided it was not the fashion." I think he means that personal attachment was viewed as anti-Communist. "Long-term relationships were considered out-of-date. One's friends and classmates were the real enemy—it was worse than having the police on your tail! Especially in Moscow. They would say, 'Are you still with that girl there? Time to change!' And I think it's the greatest failure of my life that I dropped girls that I liked because comrades told me to. It was complete madness."

Learning this we can see that the narrator of the novel is not Kadare even if some of the events in the book are (for example, his chancing upon a manuscript copy of part of Doctor Zhivago days before the furore broke out). Our young protagonist spends most of the book pining over a lost love, Lida, in fact during the chapter where the vilification of Pasternak comes to its head he’s probably more upset by the fact Lida’s dumped him and taken up with a fellow student called Stulpanc. The fault there lies squarely with him because in a drunken stupor—it seems college students are the same the world over—he handed over her phone number having decided he wanted to have nothing to do with her. All very childish.

The problems really started for Kadare, of course, when he returned to Albania. Hoxha unsettled the literati when he sided with the upcoming writers when a dispute with the old guard arose which was a clever move because he was in effect putting down a deposit on their allegiance and forming his own nomenklatura who in time he expected to function in exactly the same way as Stalin has expected the writers, artists and composers of his day to behave, as mouthpieces of the state and not of the individual artist. So Kadare has had to tread carefully over the years. Referring to The Great Winter, a 1977 novel in which he portrayed Hoxha in a somewhat flattering light, Kadare said the book was "the price he had to pay for his freedom" although when you look at the book it’s obvious he’s using broad strokes; the official response was neither lavish praise nor prohibition. It was published, yes, but he did get his knuckles rapped later on: in 1975 Kadare's privileged position ended with the publication of ‘The Red Pashas’, a poem which satirized Albania's inefficient bureaucracy. He was subsequently forced into internal exile in a small central Albanian village and forbidden to publish his works; the ban lasted for three years. Kadare’s responses to questions posed by Ben Naparstek are worth reading but are a bit long to reproduce here.

2499774In 1991, when the coast was clear and he could speak his mind (he’d sought political asylum in France by this time), Kadare wrote, in Albanian Spring: The Anatomy of Tyranny:

A writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship. […] Dictatorship and literature and only exist together as two wild beasts that have each other by the throat. Each […] is capable of wounding the other in different ways. The writer’s wounds seem horrible because they come at once. But those the writer inflicts on dictatorship are like a time bomb, and they never heal.

One has to wonder what good Kadare would’ve done had be somehow managed to get Twilight of the Eastern Gods published at the time. Look what happened to Pasternak. Kadare had to undergo similar with regard to his books The Winter of Great Solitude [an earlier version of The Great Winter] and The Palace of Dreams. So why stay? For the same reason Pasternak chose to decline the Nobel Prize. He wrote to Khrushchev:

I cannot conceive of my destiny separate from Russia, or outside it. Whatever my mistakes or failings, I could not imagine that I should find myself at the centre of such a political campaign as has been worked up round my name in the West. Once I was aware of this, I informed the Swedish Academy of my voluntary renunciation of the Nobel Prize. Departure beyond the borders of my country would for me be tantamount to death and I therefore request you not to take this extreme measure with me.

This is how Kadare feels about being Albanian. But he was in it for the long haul. There have been seemingly braver writers: On October 5, 1953, the writer Kasëm Trebeshina wrote an open letter to Hoxha criticising the obsession with socialist realism shared by the Party and the Writers' Union. His predictable reward was seventeen years in gaol and only since the fall of Communism has his work begun to appear in print in Albania. In the Paris Review interview Kadare responds:

From 1967 to 1970 I was under the direct surveillance of the dictator himself. Remember that, to the great misfortune of the intellectuals, Hoxha regarded himself as an author and a poet and therefore a “friend” of writers. As I was the country’s best-known writer, he was interested in me. In such a situation I had three choices: to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; or to pay a tribute, a bribe. I chose the third solution by writing The Long Winter.

All of this leaves me with mixed feelings. What would I have done? I’m certainly not a brave man but I’d be genuinely interested to learn how many truly brave men (and women, of course) there are out there. I think we like the idea of bravery just as we like the ideas of honesty and decency and all the rest. Or maybe it’s heroism we like the idea of and actual bravery—here I am referencing Huxley once more—is “pretty squalid” when compared with how we see bravery portrayed in films, TV shows and even newscasts. Is Kadare’s approach so different to that of, say, Shostakovich who, following his second denunciation, found himself having to compose three categories of work: film music to pay the rent, official works aimed at securing official rehabilitation, and serious works "for the desk drawer"? His response to the first you might recall was the Fifth Symphony with its subtitle, "An artist's creative response to just criticism".

It’s too late now to change what happened in Russia and Albania. It’s probably too late to stop what’s happening in China and Mexico right now. But the Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a valid—although not the most significant—contribution to the world literature that underlines the belief that freedom of speech should be an absolute human right. The evidence is growing. It was a shame what Pasternak went through but what would be a real shame is that he went through it and nothing ever changed. That said, this is not Kadare’s best work although it has its moments. It might have been realistic to include all the romance (for want of a better word) but it does take away from the momentous events going on all around him and yet strangely enough I felt short-changed on both counts.

Other reviews of Kadare’s book by me:


ismail_kadareIsmail Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, in the south of Albania. He studied in Tirana and Moscow, returning to Albania in 1960 after the country broke ties with the Soviet Union. He is known for his novels, although he was first noticed for his poetry collections. He stopped writing poems in the 1960s and focused on short stories until the publication of his first novel, The General of the Dead Army. From 1963 he has been a novelist. In 1996 he became a lifetime member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of France. In 1992, he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca; in 2005, he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 the Prince of Asturias Award of Arts. He has divided his time between Albania and France since 1990. He began writing very young, in the mid-1950s but published only a few poems. His works have been published in about thirty languages.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Awakening

the awakening

I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can't make it more clear; it's only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me. – Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Canongate Books have just republished Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening. In her e-mail to me their publicist wrote:

First published in 1899, this radical novel sent shockwaves through American society and continues to speak to readers over one hundred years later. Widely regarded in the States as one of the forerunners of feminist literature alongside Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Flaubert's Madame Bovary, it is practically unknown in the UK—a fact we hope to change with this beautiful new edition, introduced by Barbara Kingsolver.

I have to say I hadn’t heard of the book and if pressed I would’ve said Chopin was a contemporary writer. The only example of early Feminist literature I was aware of (and have read) is The Yellow Wallpaper by a fellow American, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which precedes this novel by seven years, although I did know Gilman also wrote Herland which is on my to-read list. Gilman was a prominent American feminist and a lecturer for social reform but in an interview David Chopin makes some interesting observations about his grandmother:

Kate was neither a feminist nor a suffragist, she said so. She was nonetheless a woman who took women extremely seriously. She never doubted women's ability to be strong. She came from a long line of strong women whom she loved and respected, the great-grandmother, grandmother, mother affiliation. She had strong women friends including intellectual women. Her lack of interest in feminism and suffrage did not have to do with a lack of confidence in women nor did it have a lack to do with a lack of any desire for freedom. She simply had a different understanding of freedom. She saw freedom as much more a matter of spirit, soul, character of living your life within the constraints that the world makes [or] your God offers you, because all of us do live within constraints.


I think she was an exceptionally talented and interesting woman and if I resist labelling her feminist or suffragist, or claiming her for a specific view of what women require or what women's independence requires, women's freedom requires. I resist it because I think she's much larger and more important than that. I don't think we do her any honour or further our own understanding by tying her to a particular political cause. I think she really was a dedicated and talented writer, who worked very hard to capture ineffable, delicate ideas and feelings in a prose that would do them justice. [bold mine]

A very brief summary then:

Edna Pontellier is an obedient wife and mother vacationing at Grand Isle with her family. While there she becomes close to a young man named Robert Lebrun. Before they act on their mutual romantic interest in each other, Robert leaves for Mexico.


From the 1982 film adaptation The End of August

Edna is lonely without his companionship, but shortly after her return home to New Orleans she becomes involved with Alcée Arobin. Although she doesn’t love Arobin, he does awaken various sexual passions within her.

Concurrent to Edna’s sexual awakening is her growing need for independence. Instead of spending her days concerned with household matters, she pursues her interest in painting. Since she has some capital of her own and a small income from painting Edna moves into a house of her own while her husband is away on business. At this time Robert returns, professing his love for Edna and his desire to someday marry her but, again, withdraws before anything improper can happen. Edna, increasingly struggling to cope with societal strictures, returns to Grand Isle where she first experienced her rebirth.

The Awakening is a book that can be read in a number of ways—everything from a künstlerroman to a Creole Bovary to a transcendental fable of the soul’s emergence—and there’s no reason why they can’t co-exist within the same framework but I’m not sure the book deserves to be called a Feminist text simply because its protagonist is a strong-willed woman; she’s not particularly interested in rights for women, only freedom for herself. There’s no proselytising, no burning of corsets (bras did exist in 1899 but probably weren’t commonplace), no wanting to emasculate every man she encounters. She simply wants to be able to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it. In some respects that’s a rather immature notion but as regards life’s freedoms she is something of a child despite being actually twenty-eight for most of the book, turning twenty-nine at the very end. I don’t mean ‘childish’ in a bad way, simply as a metaphor for innocence and inexperience; like all women of her time her world experiences have been limited to a “women’s sphere” cum gilded cage.

Birds crop up throughout the book (see here) beginning with a noisy parrot in the opening chapter but a particularly significant moment occurs when the pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz, puts her arms around Edna and felt her shoulder blades, “to see if [her] wings were strong”. When doing this she says:

The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.

I suppose in some respects flying and swimming are related. At the start of the novel Edna learns how to swim and can’t get enough of it; there’s a childlike delight in the fact she can now propel herself through water unaided. If you’re looking for a feminist metaphor here, sure, you can read it that way; she’s no longer supported by a man only it’s not only men. Chopin notes:

Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women; in some instances from the children. Robert had pursued a system of lessons almost daily; and he was nearly at the point of discouragement in realizing the futility of his efforts. A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water, unless there was a hand nearby that might reach out and reassure her.

But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water. [bold mine]

Yes, she’s a woman, and, yes, once she gains confidence she does say “[s]he wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before,” but one can read too much into that. Her discovering the freedom being able swim affords her is significant though:

She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.

I’m not sure if this is her epiphany or if that comes later but considering how the book ends—she returns after her testing out her wings to the spot where she learned to swim—it’s significance can’t be overlooked. Here at Grand Isle, for the first time it seems, she discovered the pleasure of being alone; indeed the book is subtitled ‘A Solitary Soul’.


From the 1982 film adaptation The End of August

Five quotes:

“Oh! I don’t know. Let me alone; you bother me.”

She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places.

But after all, a radiant peace settled upon her when she at last found herself alone.

When Edna was at last alone, she breathed a big, genuine sigh of relief.

I want to be let alone. Nobody has any right—except children, perhaps—and even then, it seems to me—or it did seem—”

She doesn’t want to be a man—although she’s clearly fond of men and men certainly feature in what passes for her plans for the future—nor is she clamouring for a divorce but when she finds herself freed for a time from not only her husband—who’s really not a bad sort and far more understanding than the husband in The Yellow Wallpaper­—but also her children—whom she loves dearly but doesn’t feel a need to centre her life around—she finds contentment in the simplest of things: painting and reading, visiting her (as opposed to ‘the family’) friends and not having to oversee a household. At one point she goes to visit the Ratignolles and, on parting, notes:

The little glimpse of domestic harmony which had been offered her gave her no regret, no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui.


From the 1999 film adaptation Grand Isle

It’s important to remember that the book’s title is called The Awakening. Edna takes time to wake up to the reality of her life. One of the most significant early moments is when she informs her husband that she’s thinking of becoming an artist:

        “I feel like painting,” answered Edna. “Perhaps I shan’t always feel like it.”
         “Then in God’s name paint! but don’t let the family go to the devil. There’s Madame Ratignolle; because she keeps up her music, she doesn’t let everything else go to chaos. And she’s more of a musician than you are a painter”.
         “She isn’t a musician, and I’m not a painter. It isn’t on account of painting that I let things go.”
         “On account of what, then?”
         “Oh! I don’t know. Let me alone; you bother me.”
        It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world. [bold mine]

It takes time to awaken. It takes time to become. The realisation may feel sudden but there will have been a journey even if it is only a relatively short one. Edna Pontellier’s journey towards self-actualisation takes a year, a little less. As rebirths go it’s fairly smooth sailing. She doesn’t have to fight for her rights. She tells her husband, no, and he takes it. The first time this happens her husband, Léonce, has come home and finds Edna lolling in a hammock on the porch:

        “Edna, dear, are you not coming in soon?” he asked again, this time fondly, with a note of entreaty.
         “No; I am going to stay out here.”
         “This is more than folly,” he blurted out. “I can’t permit you to stay out there all night. You must come in the house instantly.”
        With a writhing motion she settled herself more securely in the hammock. She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant. She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted. She wondered if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command. Of course she had; she remembered that she had. But she could not realize why or how she should have yielded, feeling as she then did.
         “Léonce, go to bed,” she said. “I mean to stay out here. I don’t wish to go in, and I don’t intend to. Don’t speak to me like that again; I shall not answer you.

He doesn’t drag her to her feet and give her a good slap. No, instead he draws up the rocker, hoists his slippered feet on the rail and waits out the night with her. He may not understand but he is understanding. And continues to be throughout the whole book.


From the 1999 film adaptation Grand Isle

Of course by today’s standards the book is tame and more people nowadays will be offended by the ways coloured people are referred to as blackies, negroes, mulattos, quadroons and, in one instance (and this was a new one on me), a griffe which is, apparently, a person of three-quarter black to one-quarter white ancestry. The last slaves were freed in 1865 so no parallels are drawn between slavery and the role of women apart from one early in the book:

“You are burnt beyond recognition,” [he husband] added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage. She held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them critically, drawing up her lawn sleeves above the wrists. Looking at them reminded her of her rings, which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach. She silently reached out to him, and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm. She slipped them upon her fingers; then clasping her knees, she looked across at Robert and began to laugh. [bold mine]

This doesn’t make Léonce a bad man because as we’ve seen already he clearly cares for his wife’s wellbeing. He’s also a man of his time and behaves as he sees others behaving. He has a business to run and is (perhaps overly) concerned about how he is perceived in the local community so it’s actually to the man’s credit that he doesn’t rein his wife in.

Tame as the book is by today’s standards the book was not well received. In her preface to the Norton critical edition of the novel Margaret Culley writes that The Awakening

…met with widespread hostile criticism and the book was removed from the library shelves in St. Louis. Chopin herself was refused membership in the St. Louis Fine Arts Club because of the novel. In 1906 it was reprinted by Duffield (New York); but then it went out of print and remained so for more than half a century in this country.

To be fair not all reviews were negative. C. L. Deyo in his review wrote:

It is sad and mad and bad, but it is all consummate art. The theme is difficult, but it is handled with cunning craft. The work is more than unusual. It is unique. The integrity of its art is that of well-knit individuality at one with itself, with nothing superfluous to weaken the impression of the perfect whole.

It was very much the exception. The novel “leaves one sick of human nature” complained another critic; “it is not a healthy book” said one more. (See more here.) The public reaction devastated her. In July 1899 she even went as far as publishing a retraction in Book News, a literary journal:

Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. I never dreamed of Mrs Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to the play was half over and it was then too late.

“She was broken-hearted,” her son Felix said, and in the remaining few years of her life (she died in 1904) she produced only a few pieces, half a dozen stories and a few poems. How sincere—or indeed accurate—her retraction is who can tell? Me, I don’t buy it. I was only a few pages into the book and I already could see the writing was on the wall; she knew where this story was going from the jump.

I do, however, think the book was misread by many. In 1895 Grant Allen published a novel called The Woman Who Did about a young, self-assured middle-class woman who defies convention as a matter of principle and who is fully prepared to suffer the consequences of her actions which is perhaps why certain reviewers saw The Awakening as part of the “overworked field of sex fiction”. Is there sex in the book? Yes, but Fear of Flying it is not; blink and you’ll miss it. Kenneth Eble in his essay, states bluntly: “Quite frankly, the book is about sex.” It is not. If sex was what Edna was after then she misses a lot of opportunities. She chooses to have extramarital relations twice and that takes up a couple of lines in a book of a hundred and fifty-odd pages. When Robert, the male friend who she met on holiday at the start of the book and whom she falls for in a big way, returns towards the end of the novel (having done the gentlemanly thing and removed himself from the path of temptation) does Edna throw herself as him? No, she says, “I’d rather talk about you, and know what you have been seeing and doing and feeling out there in Mexico.” Chopin tells us earlier on that Edna “was almost devoid of coquetry.” She’s not a flirt. She’s not a tease. But she does enjoy the company of men:

There were one or two men whom she observed at the soirée musicale; but she would never have felt moved to any kittenish display to attract their notice—to any feline or feminine wiles to express herself toward them. Their personality attracted her in an agreeable way. Her fancy selected them, and she was glad when a lull in the music gave them an opportunity to meet her and talk with her.

The book’s ending, now, that’s another thing entirely and very much open to interpretation. My own reading of it is that the symbolism suggests she’s overreached herself—or is in imminent danger of doing so—and freedom comes at a price. Also once a caged animal, no matter how well cared for, has tasted freedom there’s nothing that would lure it back. I personally don’t think Edna does overreach herself; if anything she takes baby steps. I take umbrage on Edna’s behalf. It’s as much as I can say without revealing the ending but a lot has been written about it and I’m not sure I have a lot to add other than what I’ve hinted at here.

The thing about Edna, though, is that she’s actually a bit of a Romantic and I’ve never really seen Feminists as Romantics (as opposed to romantic feminists); they’re pragmatists, realists, women with their eyes open who see the world for what it is which is why they want to change it. There’s a part of me that feels Edna is being indulged and that her husband’s going to turn up any day with a short leash and drag her off to the Continent; he’s a patient man but even he has his limits. Of course we’ll never know because the book ends before his return. What if? What if? What if?

Some books can be read, enjoyed for what they are and forgotten. This is not one of them despite the sad fact that for years it was forgotten. There are layers here and much has been written about it since its rediscovery in the mid-sixties. I’ve read a fair bit in preparing this article but most of it I can’t talk about without saying too much which I’ve probably already done. The book is dated, without a doubt, but it’s more than a historical curiosity. I agree with her grandson in his estimation of the book. In chapter six Chopin writes:

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. [bold mine]

Kate-ChopinThat moment comes to us all eventually, the men, the women, the feminists, the romantics, even the deluded and, yes, there are those who think that Edna’s kidding herself. Read the book. Think about it. Make your own mind up.

If you are interested in learning more about her then The Kate Chopin International Society’s website is a good a place to start as any. As I’ve said, a lot has been written about this wee book over the years and the web contains a wealth of information from a variety of angles. The following list is a little long but if you’re serious about studying the book I’ve probably saved you a good couple of hours work. You’re welcome.


Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Struggle Against Society and Nature

Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening (PBS documentary, transcript)

Kate Chopin's The Awakening: A Critical Reception

A Catalogue of Symbols in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Adele Ratignolle: Kate Chopin's Feminist at Home in The Awakening

Kate Chopin as Feminist: Subverting the French Androcentric Influence

A Feminist Analysis of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Deconstructionist and Feminist Analysis of The Awakening

The Bird that Came out of the Cage: A Foucauldian Feminist Approach to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

Out of Place, Out of Time? Reading Kate Chopin through Contemporary French Feminist Theory

Tenuous Feminism and Unorthodox Naturalism: Kate Chopin’s Unlikely Literary Victory at the Close of the 19th Century

Feminine Quest for Individuality in Beowulf and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

Reading and Translating Kate Chopin's The Awakening as a Non-Feminist Text

A "Cry of the Dying Century": Kate Chopin, The Awakening and the Women’s Cause

Edna’s Failure to Find Her Female Role in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

Writing The 'Solitary Soul': Anticipations of Modernism & Negotiations of Gender in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Gender and Literary Valorization: The Awakening of a Canonical Novel

The Awakening: Female Characters and their Social Roles

Representations of Love and Female Gender Identities in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Birth and Creativity

The Masculine Sea and the Impossibility of Awakening in Chopin’s The Awakening

Edna Pontellier’s unwomanly vocation in The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in the Light of Freud’s Structural Model of the Psyche

Dropping Hints and the Power of Foreshadowing in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

Marriage, Motherhood, and Reception in the Fiction of Chopin and Wharton

The Devil in the House: The Awakening of Chopin’s Anti-Hero

The Missing Link: Kate Chopin and The Awakening

Too High a Price: Sacrifice and the Double Standard in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Loss of Self and the Struggle for Individuality in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (need to download PDF)

The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin's Fantasy of Desire

Solitary Blessings: Solitude in the Fiction of Hawthorne, Melville, and Kate Chopin

The Evolution of Kate Chopin’s Heroines

The Awakening - Multiple Critical Perspectives (only an extract but looks like an interesting book)

The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper: An Intertextual Comparison of the "Conventional" Connotations of Marriage and Propriety

Marriage and Sexuality in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying

The Criticism Surrounding the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (only read once you’ve finished the book)

Death as a Metaphor in The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin's At Fault: The Usefulness of Louisiana French for the Imagination (Not directly about The Awakening but as there’s so many French references in the book you might find it of some use)

The Awakening Study Guide (a bit basic but a decent enough overview although I would’ve thought more would’ve been said about the French expressions)

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Seven years on


6a00d8341c39e853ef0177436c54ea970d-320wiI’ve been doing this for seven years now. Blogging. That’s a long time. There aren’t many people who’ve blogged consistently over that long a time. So allow me a moment to pat myself on the back.


I don’t normally celebrate anniversaries. A lot of people do. But my 100th post slipped by without mention and I’m not far off from my 600th which will probably pass without any fuss or comment. That’s just me. But I’ve been thinking for a while about what my expectations were like at the start and what I’ve achieved since I began devoting so much of my time to online activities and a seven year anniversary is as good as any time to talk about it.

A lot can happen in seven years. Eight years ago I was working myself into the ground and on the brink of a rather nasty nervous breakdown. The only thing in my life was work. And then my life changed forever. I was made redundant and Carrie decided—because I was in no fit state to decide anything—we could afford for me not to go back fulltime and so I never have. It’s a wonderful position to be in and I realise that many of you will be thinking Jammy bugger as you read this. Just imagine, the freedom to spend all day every day reading and writing and watching TV because that pretty much is my life. What could you achieve given that amount of leeway?

The thing is that breakdown I had to go through to get me to this point in my life was a doozy and I’ve never been the same since. I’m better but I’m not the man I used to be. I’m also seven years older for starters, seven years further away from my prime. It’s all downhill from here. This doesn’t mean I’ve been idle over the last seven years—far from it—but the legacy of the breakdown is that I’m nowhere near as efficient as I used to be. And I forget stuff. It’s not Alzheimer’s. I don’t think it’s Alzheimer’s. I went to the Glasgow Memory Clinic a few months back and was tested. I do have what they classify as mild cognitive impairment but my memory isn’t so bad that I don’t know what day of the week it is or what city I live in. But I do have trouble retaining information—holding three things in my head’s a challenge—which makes writing novels tricky.

The solution to that, after giving up on two or three ideas for novels (I really can’t remember if it was two or three), was the novella. I’ve completed two, Exit Interview and In the Beginning was the Word and both are written entirely in dialogue, the novel stripped bare. Other than that the only extended prose writing I’ve done in the last seven years was to finish my fifth novel, Left, after about a three year break. Poems come when the mood suits them and although I don’t write a lot—a dozen in a year is good—I’m happy with the quality and that’s what matters. A wee while back I was reading through the hundreds of poems I wrote in my teens and they are SO BAD.

Publishing is another thing completely. Things have changed radically in the last seven years especially since 2009 with the release of the Kindle 2. There had been e-readers before but for some reason—that mysterious ‘some reason’—the public started to show a real interest in electronic books and everything went to pot from there. Suddenly everyone and his cat could produce a book and have it out there within an hour or two of completion no matter what state it was in and the market was flooded. Publishing changed overnight and it really hasn’t found its feet.

The Internet’s also gone through a bit of a shake-up since 2007. Facebook existed back then and it was fairly popular but not like today. Twitter was a mewling infant and Pinterest, or whatever the next big thing’s going to be, didn’t exist yet. Interest in blogging’s also fallen off. People aren’t writing blogs like they used to, nor are people reading them, which is a shame because the reason I started this blog in the first place was because that’s what the people in the know said an aspiring writer ought to do: start a blog and blog regularly. At my blog’s peak I was getting about 10,000 hits in a month. Now we’re down to about 4,000 which is still nothing to be sniffed at. Okay I blog a little less than I used to but it’s still a heckuva a fall. At least I’m still attracting readers. What I’m not attracting—what I’ve never attracted—are book buyers. And this was the main reason for starting the blog in the first place. To establish myself. To earn people’s respect. And I think I’ve done that. I hope I’ve done that. I’ve certainly worked my butt off trying to do that. There are a handful of people out there who get me. And that’s great. The blog’s brought me friends some of whom I expect to be friends with until I die. That I didn’t expect and was an added bonus. But I did think I’d attract a few more actual readers, the kind of readers who get excited when they learn I’ve a new book out—it’s not as if I’m bring one out every fortnight. Okay, a fan base. I mean a fan base.

This makes me wonder why I’m continuing to blog and not putting my energy into book promotion. Now here’s the thing: I don’t think the majority of online book promotion works or at least the return on investment is measly. The exceptions are exactly that and we shouldn’t start thinking of them as the norm. There will always Making Sense 517 x 800be books like Fifty Shades of Grey and the reasons for their success will remain a complete mystery. There are plenty of sites out there reviewing books—although the standard of reviewing varies widely (don’t get me started on the girl who gave Making Sense 2½ stars because she mistook my collection of short stories for a novel)—but even a site like mine where I at least try to do a half-decent review, well, you’ve seen how many readers I get and that’s after seven years of consistently showing up week in and week out so as not to disappoint my readers. But even there, who exactly are my readers? Most of them are writers. Some self-publish or only post new material on their blogs and that’s enough for them. A few have published with small presses. One or two have even put out a book or two with a medium-sized press. Not many are just readers. Because just readers don’t subscribe to blogs like mine or any of the sites where reviews of my books have appeared except by accident. They wander into Waterstones and pick up the first shiny thing they see. Or spend a few minutes on Amazon seeing if anything catches their eye. But they don’t exactly trawl through the millions upon millions of titles looking for the book that no one else is reading because there are hundreds upon hundreds of perfectly readable books out there so they simply go with one of them. Besides who has the time for that?

Most of the books I’ve read recently—those not send to be from publishers—I’ve found by chance. I’ve a review coming up of a book that I really enjoyed. It’s from a bloke in Maine and I just stumbled on it, just like that. I wasn’t looking for it. I would know where to start looking for it. You can find it in Amazon under Contemporary Fiction, Fiction and Humour. It has three reviews, two five- and one four-star. How was I ever going to find it? I could tell you the title. I could. I could even tell you the author’s name; that’d be a help. But that’s the problem and I’ve said it time and time again. The Internet is like a dictionary: it’s great as long as you know what you’re looking for. I’ll post the review in a week or two or three and maybe out of my 4000 readers, one or two, will buy this guy’s book. I have no stats to back that up but I’ll be surprised if it’s many more because we all have too many books to read as it is. I see my books on the to-be-read lists of people in Goodreads but none of them ever get round to buying the book. It’s for that reason I don’t keep a to-be-read list online because someone will inevitably end up disappointed and the horrible thing, the really horrible thing, is that I’d probably have enjoyed their book more than half of the books I did end up reading and gave preference to simply because they were people I thought I ought to be reading.

This year I set myself the task of reading one hundred books. It’s an arbitrary figure and I’m not normally one who sets goals but this year—for one year only as I’m starting to run out of thin books—I’m going to read a hundred books. As I’m writing this I’ve got five months left and I’m already around the seventy-five mark. So I don’t imagine I’m going to have too much trouble hitting my target. I could be doing other things. I have books written that only need a decent edit and they could be out there—my wife thinks there actually `might be a market for In the Beginning was the Word—but I really have lost heart over this last year. Which is why I think I’ve been content to do the bare minimum to satisfy my commitments—a post here every Sunday (three book reviews to one article), two shortish posts for McVoices on the first and third Wednesdays of the month and a five hundred word review of a poetry book for Elsewhere whenever Rob gets round to sending me something)—and that’s it. I’ve not been doing much promotion. I’ve not even been sending out stories and poems. The result was a second novella and I have an idea for a third but that’s all I’m saying on that count. Because I’ve allowed myself space to be bored. I’ve written about boredom at length here. Its importance to creative types cannot be exaggerated.

Reader (border)Everything will get published eventually. I have a book of poems that needs a bit of ordering and weeding but after popping into Tell it Slant a few weeks back and discovering all three copies of This Is Not About What You Think that I donated to help Ellen when she was starting up still sitting on a shelf and looking like they’d never been handled, well, that didn’t exactly do much to boost my enthusiasm. The next collection—which will be entitled Reader Please Supply Meaning—is a book of poems about poetry and we all know how popular they are so we’ll do a small run so I have copies for my friends to stick on their shelves and then I’ll maybe start thinking about editing my novel The More Things Change which I had planned to work on this year but that never happened.

I don’t like to moan (who am I kidding? I love to moan) but everyone needs a bit of a moan every now and then. It changes nothing. Moany posts tend to get a few more comments than most—others encouraging you not to give up—and they’re all sincere and well-meant and if you fancy spending two minutes offering a fellow writer a bit of solidarity then go for it. It won’t hurt.


As for the next seven years… Well, who knows? I’m running out of ideas for articles. I’ve enough to last to the end of the year and you never know I might get inspired but I’ve really added most of what I have to add. The same old subjects crop up again and again on sites like mine—is the novel dead? what is poetry? does the Oxford comma matter?—and mostly these are all questions where the answers aren’t important. What is poetry? Poetry’s what I write. I recognise it the moment the words hit the page. I have no need to define it. I just want to write more of the damn stuff. I likewise don’t care how many angels can perch on the head of a needle. Idiotic question!

I’ll keep reviewing books for now. I enjoy reviewing books. I pay more attention to a book when I know I have to talk about it and I get more out of it because of that. But I now realise that this is not the place to promote my books. I’ll mention when there’s a new one but I don’t know about you but I hate those author sites where all they go on about is their book, their one book, their only book as if it’s the only book in the goddamn world: Read my book. Read my book. Read my soddin’ book. Buddy: no one’s going to read your book. Or as near to no one as doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. Not enough difference to get yourself in a tizzy. So stop getting yourself in a state and focus all that energy on something else. Write another book. Go for a walk. Something. My sales this year probably amount to something like 0.0000000273% of the total books sold in the UK, probably less, and so, seriously, if I sold ten times or a hundred times more than I’m selling right now no one’s going to notice the ripples; it’ll still round down to zero. Puts things in perspective. I’m doing better than Van Gogh did during his lifetime, let’s put it that way.

My wife and I sat and watched an interview with Anita Desai a couple of weeks back. It was a good, long one. During the interview she talked about what life used to be like in India for natives writing in English. No one was even remotely interested. Following independence de-anglicisation became a matter of national pride. What were these writers thinking hanging onto a dead colonial language? Still they amounted to a handful of writers and you know the size of India. What harm could they do? Only from 1980—yes, that recently—when Midnight’s Children came out did Indian publishers there lift their heads up and go, “Eh?” Maybe there were a few rupees to be earned here after all. Change came quickly after that. Who knows what will happen in the next thirty years? I may still be around then. I’m not planning on it but anything after seventy-five is a bonus as far as I’m concerned and maybe by then publishing in the twenty-first century will’ve got its act together. I can wait. Books don’t go out of date. People treat them as if they do—such a stupid mentality—but most (satire and celebrity bios excepted) don’t; we just start thinking of them as historical fiction.

I never expected to—and I use the term loosely—“make it” quickly, or at all really, but it was disappointing to see the goalposts move. Now I’m not even sure what game we’re playing as people keep making up the rules as they go. There are lots of people out there offering advice (for a price) but the only real answer is: Write what people want to read. And if you’re unwilling to or incapable of doing that then just be grateful for the odd sale that comes your way. It was better in the gold ol’ days when writers wrote and that’s pretty much all they were expected to do apart from maybe sign a few books and there were only about six genres.

Lastly I should just like to say thank you to those who have hung on with me through the last seven years. I doubt any are still around from the very start but I can think of a couple who appeared pretty close to it. But even if it’s just been a year, a month or a week I’m still glad you’re here. And if this happens to be the very first post of mine you’ve read then please feel free to dip into my back catalogue. There’s some good stuff there. If I say so myself.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Appointment

the appointment herta muller

[T]here's nothing to think about, because I myself am nothing, apart from being summoned. - Herta Müller, The Appointment

After Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in 2009 I, I imagine like a number of others, went out and tracked down a copy of one of her books to see what the fuss was all about. Like many Nobel laureates I’d never heard of her before and felt bad about that. The book I ended up reading was The Passport which I reviewed here. In my article I included the following quote:

A year after my departure from Romania in 1987, Jenny came to visit in Berlin. Since the time of the harassments in the factory she had been my closest friend. Even after I had been sacked we saw each other almost daily. But when I saw her passport in our Berlin kitchen, and in it additional visas for France and Greece, I said to her face: "You don't get a passport like that for nothing, what have you done to get it." Her answer: "The secret service has sent me, and I absolutely wanted to see you again." Jenny had cancer – she is long dead. She told me that her task was to investigate our flat and our daily habits. When we get up and go to bed, where we do our shopping and what we buy. On her return, she promised, she would only pass on what had been agreed between us. She lived with us, wanted to stay for a month. With each day my distrust grew. After just a couple of days I rummaged through her suitcase and found the telephone number of the Romanian consulate and a copy of our door key. After that I lived with the suspicion that in all probability she had been spying on me from the beginning, her friendship being a task. – Herta Müller, ‘Securitate in all but name’,, 31st August 2009

The second novel I ended up reading really explores this situation. When I read that paragraph I was reminded of the bit in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four where Smith runs into his old neighbour Parsons who’s also been arrested and charged with thoughtcrime:

‘Who denounced you?’ said Winston. ‘It was my little daughter,’ said Parsons with a sort of doleful pride. ‘She listened at the keyhole. Heard what I was saying, and nipped off to the patrols the very next day. Pretty smart for a nipper of seven, eh? I don’t bear her any grudge for it. In fact I’m proud of her. It shows I brought her up in the right spirit, anyway.’

1984I read Nineteen Eighty-Four about forty years ago. The actual 1984 came and went about ten years later without much consequence. Little did I realise that while I was devouring that book a not too dissimilar state existed in the country of Romania. Although Ceaușescu had been head of state since 1965 he’d merely been first among equals on the State Council. In 1974, however, Ceaușescu converted his post of president of the State Council to a full-fledged executive presidency. He also appointed and dismissed the president of the Supreme Court and the prosecutor general whenever the legislature wasn't in session. In practice, from 1974 onward Ceaușescu frequently ruled by decree. Ceaușescu presided over the most pervasive cult of personality within the Eastern Bloc inspired by the personality cult surrounding North Korea's ruling family, the Kims. Initially, the cult of personality was only focused on Ceaușescu himself; however, by the early 1980s, his wife Elena was also a focus of the cult even to the extent that she got credit for scientific achievements which she could never have accomplished.

Like Big Brother Ceaușescu was obsessively concerned about how he was perceived:

Ceaușescu was greatly concerned about his public image. Nearly all official photographs of him showed him in his early 40s. Romanian state television was under strict orders to portray him in the best possible light. Additionally, producers had to take great care to make sure that Ceaușescu's height—he was 1.65m (5-foot 5 inches) tall—was never emphasized on screen. Consequences for breaking these rules were severe; one producer showed footage of Ceaușescu blinking and stuttering, and was banned for three months. – Wikipedia

This is the world in which The Appointment is set. Of course Ceaușescu is never mentioned. It’s not even clear that the city in the novel is Timișoara, that is to say, the capital of the multi-ethnic region of the Banat in which Müller was born. It doesn’t matter. The book’s power is that it could be set in any police state. The narrator, a nameless factory seamstress, has been caught slipping marriage proposals into the back pockets of suit trousers bound for export. (Interestingly I didn’t realise she was nameless until I started comparing other reviews and someone mentioned it.) For this she has been arraigned on a charge of prostitution, though anything is better than a life in a communist sweatshop “cutting, stitching, finishing, ironing and knowing all the time you're not worthy of the final product”. It’s not her children who’ve denounced her but a fellow employee, her supervisor, Nelu:

When I was confronted about the notes, he denied having informed on me. Anyone can deny things. It was just after I had separated from my first husband; white linen suits were being packed up for Italy. After we went on a ten-day business trip together, Nelu expected to keep on sleeping with me. But I’d made up my mind to marry a Westerner, and I slipped the same note into ten back pockets: Marry me, ti aspetto, signed with my name and address. The first Italian who replied would be accepted.

At the meeting, which I was not allowed to attend, my notes were judged to be prostitution in the workplace. Lilli told me Nelu had argued for treason, but had failed to convince them. Since I wasn’t a Party member and since it was my first offense, they decided to give me a chance to mend my ways. I wasn’t fired, which was a defeat for Nelu. The man in charge of ideological affairs personally delivered two written reprimands to my office. I had to sign the original for the records, the copy remained on my desk.

I’ll frame it, I said.

But it doesn’t end there:

[T]hree notes later found in trousers destined for Sweden read: Best wishes from the dictatorship. The notes were just like mine, but I didn’t write them. I was fired.

Where we first meet her is on her way to her appointment with Major Albu of the secret police. She’s not been arrested but every few days she has to travel to be interrogated by him whenever called. The book opens:

I’ve been summoned. Thursday, at ten sharp.

Lately I’m being summoned more and more often: ten sharp on Tuesday, ten sharp on Saturday, on Wednesday, Monday. As if years were a week, I’m amazed that winter comes so close on the heels of late summer.


[T]oday I’m carrying a small towel, a toothbrush, and some toothpaste in my handbag. And no handkerchief, since I’m determined not to cry. Paul didn’t realize how terrified I was that today Albu might take me down to the cell below his office. I didn’t bring it up. If that happens, he’ll find out soon enough.

Herta-MuellerWhen reading this I assigned no great significance to the handkerchief but after reading her Nobel acceptance speech I realise that handkerchiefs are a significant emblem in Müller’s life and maybe more can be read into this simple statement.

While travelling her thoughts shift back and forth and gradually a picture builds up of what her life has been like over the past few years and not only her life but that of her parents and grandparents, too, going back to the 1950’s; a brief recent history of Romania then. And an at times a quite surreal portrait it is, too. It’s no wonder Müller's been compared to Kafka. “The trick is not to go mad.” So the book ends. A hard call all things considered.

The narrator of The Appointment is a watcher. All writers are although she’s never described as a writer. But she is a watcher in a country full of watchers. She lives with Paul, an alcoholic, who she met selling illegal aerials. A car sits outside their flat. They assume it’s the Securitate.

For a whole week, when summer came and people began running around in short sleeves, Paul and I were suspicious of a man who to this day walks over from the shops every morning at ten to eight, empty-handed. Every day he steps off the paved sidewalk and follows the paths around the dumpsters and then steps back on the sidewalk and returns to the shops. At one point Paul couldn’t stand it any longer, he stuffed some paper in a plastic bag and set out to follow the man.

It’s an oppressive life. Her neighbour, Herr Micu, has been summoned, too, and ordered to record her movements:

The elevator came and the door opened. It was empty, but Herr Micu stuck his head inside as if to double-check whether someone wasn’t standing on the ceiling. He wedged his foot against the door.

I waited to catch you because I had no idea when you come and when you go. I have to write it down.

I could see the last mailbox on the wall reflected in one of his eyes, or was that just his pupil turning white and square. I didn’t compare it with his other eye, because he whispered:

I’ve already filled two school notebooks, I have to buy them myself.

Feeling bad she buys him a notebook but it turns out its too big so she uses it herself “to record whatever Albu says to me while kissing my hand, or how many paving stones, fence slats, telegraph poles, or windows there are between one spot and another. I don’t like writing, because something that’s written down can be discovered, but I have to do it.”

As she travels she remembers her father, a bus driver who carried on an affair with a vegetable seller, “the woman with the braid” as she calls her; her friend Lilli, who was shot dead on the border while trying to flee with her lover, a sixty-six-year-old retired army officer; her ex-husband, who nearly threw her off a bridge when he found out she wanted to leave him and her lover Paul, whom she first met at the flea market while trying to get a fair price for her wedding ring. She remembers a boy she knew as a girl who died and she remembers, too, her former father-in-law, a man she refers to as “the Perfumed Commissar,” who dispatched her grandparents to a forced labour camp while sitting astride the same white horse he rode when he confiscated the property of others and, of course, how could she forget her fling with Nelu while on a visit to “Button Central” the largest button factory in the country?

Part of a recurring pattern in the book concerns older men who sleep with young women. Lilli is especially prone:

Lilli had loved a hotel porter, a doctor, a dealer in leather goods, a photographer. Old men, to my way of thinking, at least twenty years older than she was. She didn’t call any of them old. She’d say:

He isn’t exactly young.

This list doesn’t include her stepfather who she seduces:

Even a child has secrets, Lilli said to me, and I wasn’t a child anymore. I put the loaf down on the kitchen table and pulled my dress over my head as if it were a handkerchief. That’s how it all started. It went on for over two years, nearly every day except Sundays, and always in a rush, always in the kitchen, we never touched the beds. He’d send my mother to the shop, sometimes there’d be a long line, sometimes a short one, she never caught us.

In a totalitarian states there’s not much comfort to be had. People drink and have sex. Herr Micu once says to Paul:

Every time we have sex it’s a spoonful of sugar for her shattered nerves, the only thing I can use to keep my wife from taking leave of her senses.

Her senses, Paul asked.

Her senses, I said taking leave of her senses, I’m not saying I can restore her mind.

A particularly sad scene plays out when our narrator—in a naïve attempt to take the place of “the woman with the braid”—tries to seduce her own father.

There is a wonderful paragraph that reminded me of Pozzo’s speech from Waiting for Godot, the one where he talks about giving birth astride the grave:

You go out for a walk and the world opens up for you. And before you’ve even stretched your legs properly, it closes shut. From here to there it’s all just the farty sputter of a lantern. And they call that having lived. It’s not worth the bother of putting on your shoes.

I don’t think Beckett would’ve been too displeased if he’d written that himself.

One adjective that crops up all the time in reviews of Müller’s writing—including this book—is ‘difficult’—the reviewer in The New York Times said The Appointment was “more a test of endurance than a pleasure”—and whereas it’s true to say I’ve picked up books that are easier to read, once you get into Müller’s rhythm this is a fairly straightforward text. She could’ve made life easier for her readers by indicating where the flashbacks where because suddenly I’d find myself back on the tram and I’d go, Eh? Also, and I really don’t know why writers think this is cool thing to do, she doesn’t used quotation marks nor—and this is the real puzzler (never come across this one before)—question marks. What harm has the poor question mark ever done anyone? Some of her run-on sentences were a bit unnecessary too; my English teacher would’ve had a field day if I’d submitted stories punctuated like these. These are quirks and although they’re mildly annoying, as I’ve said, once you get used to them they’re no big deal.

‘Surrealist’, ‘magic realist’ and ‘fable-like’ were all expressions that’ve been used to describe The Passport but there’s not much of that here. Some of the writing can be a bit poetic at times as her mind wanders but I wouldn’t say there’s even a lot of that. A nice example though is:

When she dried herself she became like the towel, when she cleared the dishes she became like the table, and she became like the chair when she sat down.

The basic storyline is conveyed in easy-to-read—albeit badly- unconventionally-punctuated—prose.

The ending is odd and unexpected. Because of a ruckus on the tram she doesn’t get dropped off at the police headquarters; the tram driver insists on dropping everyone off at the next designated stop. Because of this she has to rush and there’s a very good chance that she’ll be late. But because of this she sees someone she didn’t expect to see. And if her world wasn’t in enough turmoil, frozen in that moment she realises she’s going to be late for the first time. If she even goes now. Why not head home and simply await Albu there, him or his henchmen? People can continue to resist as long as they have a good enough reason. When that reason is cast in doubt why go on?

Native RealmIn Native Realm, Czesław Miłosz writes: “Terror is not, as Western intellectuals imagine, monumental; it is abject, it has a furtive glance, it destroys the fabric of human society and changes the relationships of millions of individuals into channels for blackmail.” What is madness? In simple terms I suppose it’s a willingness to accept the unbelievable, that—to hark back to Orwell again—two plus two might actually equal five. Winston accepts that. At least he shows a willingness to accept that. She believes there are four possible ways for life to play out: “The first and the best: don't get summoned and don't go mad, like most people.” The second is to not get summoned but lose your mind anyway like Herr Micu’s wife. The third is to get summoned and go mad. The fourth is to get summoned but not go mad. “The trick is not to go mad.” So says the unnamed narrator on the final page of this novel but is that the last sane thing she’s ever going to say?

You find, in Herta Müller's prose, no epic line, no plot with beginning and end. If the world is ambiguous and opaque, literature must cease to provide a deceptive overview of it. She has said that only fictional surprise allows us to approach reality. She scissors out bits of experience to subsequently amalgamate them, and she has also used collage as a method to write poetry. – Presentation Speech by Professor Anders Olsson, Member of the Swedish Academy, 10 December 2009.

There is nothing epic in a ninety minute tram ride. There is nothing heroic in getting from one day to the next. Winston Smith was not a hero. The woman is this novel is not a heroine. The world only ever gives birth to a handful of heroes at a time. The rest of us muddle through. It’s hardly worth putting on our shoes.

Not everyone will enjoy this book. I’ve read some reviews that’ve only given it one star and others who, although they appreciate the quality of the writing, have got lost somewhere along the line. One said of the ending, “Is her ambiguity incredibly bold or am I incredibly dense?” 108 gave it five stars on Goodreads: Pamela writes, “The Appointment is probably one of the most moving books I have read in the last 5 years, and I log a few books a week...” and Ruth says, “This is a book that will haunt me.” Me, I was touched by it. It lacks the power of Nineteen Eighty-Four—it’s a more intimate book—but in its own quiet way it begs to be remembered.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

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