I wanted to give this book three stars but then a little voice in my head said, “Vanessa, be honest, this book is one of the most important books written by a living writer. How can you give it a lower rating than all those trashy erotica books you read?”
Well, the truth is I didn’t like the ending. It was too happy. It didn’t feel genuine. It was glib.
Not that sincerity is my strong suit. Some of you reading this may not know that I pretend to have a blog. It’s not really a blog. I simply paste my Goodreads reviews into it and pretend it’s a blog.
But I haven’t even been doing much pasting recently. My blog is suffering long Days of Abandonment. The most recent comment on my blog says “I miss your blogging.”
But instead of blogging I’ve been using the London Underground. I’ve been rubbing up against real people every day.
Last week I was on one of the most congested routes at the peak of the rush hour, on the Jubilee Line between Canada Water and London Bridge. The woman beside me was reading Troubling Love and the woman standing over us in the throng of people crammed into that carriage stooped and touched her book and said “Oh, you’re reading Elena Ferrante. Isn’t she just great? I’m about to finish The Story of the Lost Child.”
The startled stranger looked up at this weird woman on the Undergound. “Isn’t it fantastic? I had to read the last half really slowly because I didn’t want it to end.”
“I know! I don’t know what I’m going to read next. I have to read another one by her. What is that one like?”
“This one is good too. But have you read The Days of Abandonment?”
“Oh you should! That is an amazing book. I really like the way she writes. She’s fierce. She’s kind of scary but I love it.”
I was deep into a Sweetmeats Press book at the time. I didn’t feel confident enough to lean across and say, “But weren’t you let down by the ending?”
And in any case, the ending is just a few sentences. The rest of the book is indeed scarily visceral and intense. And it’s all that scary visceral intensity that makes The Days of Abandonment a really important and thrilling book that will make you want to read everything by Elena Ferrante and enthuse about her to strangers on the Tube.
The rest of the book is not glib at all. Quite the opposite. It has the rawness of unadulterated truth. No wonder Elena doesn’t want you to know who she is.
Go and read all you can by her and tell all your friends about her, straight away!
I hope I never meet Viola Di Grado. Her latest novel, The Hollow Heart, has the authentic ring of autobiography. Pure imagination is incapable of inventing something this assured, this intense and vivid. It must be drawn from life.
And what a sick, doom-laden, psychotic life it is! The narrator, Dorotea Giglio, is a sensitive soul, quirky, morbid, self-obsessed and glum. But the most disconcerting thing about Dorothea is the fact that she is dead.
She is dead from the first sentence. She remains dead until the last.
You might wonder if there can be a plot in a novel when the main character, who is also the narrator, is dead throughout.
Well, let me assure you, this novel holds quite a few surprises. There is more than just a back story. Things happen to Dorotea after she dies.
First, things happen physically to her corpse. We are not spared the details. If you are squeamish you can skip the bits in italics but I don’t recommend this. The close-up scrutiny of her putrefying corpse is intrinsic to Dorotea’s story.
For although Dorotea has a scientific interest in bodily decay, she discovers there is more to death than this. There is spiritual change too. There is growth.
There is also an awful, chilling moment towards the end of the novel when you think something truly shocking and unforgivable is about to happen. I had my still pumping heart in my mouth.
I won’t spoil one of the best moments in the novel by telling you more about it. Suffice to say that Dorotea likes to tease.
She is playful with language too. “I died of optimism,” she laments. “I thought my suffering would end after I died.”
Suffering is only part of the process. Through suffering comes revelation. After revelation, something else. I’m not sure what to call it. Perhaps you could call it redemption but that sounds inappropriately religious. The novel is too subversive to fit into the tradition of religious doctrine suggested by the themes of suffering, revelation and redemption. It is a meditation on death that becomes a celebration of life. It celebrates, above all, a life rooted in the senses and expressed in words. Life holds possibilities the dead can only envy.
Because of this, the dead need psychiatric help. Your help.
As a disembodied ghost, Dorotea loses the ability to read. She can see the words on the page but she can no longer decipher their meaning. She can, however, write, and in writing she hopes to be rescued — rescued by you, the reader.
If that seems paradoxical, a greater paradox was that in reading her words I found myself rescued by Dorotea.
Yes, I think the word rescued is not too strong to describe what happened to me. It happened on a subconscious level. I didn’t realise the connection at first. But towards the end of the novel, having put it away in my bag and finished with it for the morning, I received a text from a friend whose father had just died. I didn’t know her father well but I suddenly had a strong conviction that I wanted to go to the funeral. Normally I avoid funerals. But this time I felt an irresistible compulsion to bond with my friend and pay respects to her father. What can I say? It was an epiphany. I felt different, very different inside.
It wasn’t until the next day when I pulled The Hollow Heart out of my bag again and found where I’d left off, that I realised that Dorotea had changed my attitude to the dead.
I am not going to attempt to put this feeling into words. I cannot begin to come near Viola Di Grado’s proficiency with language. I will just say that it was her words that brought about this change in me.
I no longer fear death. In fact I want to make friends with the dead. I long to embrace Dorotea as a sister.
Alas, I can’t say the same about Viola Di Grado. A writer this powerful is scary. I really hope to God I never meet her.
Some books shouldn’t be rushed. Although Total Chaos is a slim book, written in short, punchy sentences, it is like a rich ragout, brimming with flavours, pungent, concentrated, sensual and intense. It should be savoured slowly. There is a lifetime of experience distilled into it.
At first I struggled. The names of people and places were strange to me. I was reading the English translation but it was an English I couldn’t understand. I had no idea who the characters were or what kind of lives they led. Although each sentence meant something in isolation, together they made my head spin and I became confused.
But Jean-Claude Izzo gives you everything you need to know in this novel. It’s not his fault if you don’t get it. He immerses you in Marseilles, his city. It is a fully realised Marseilles, though not the city the tourists know. He takes you to places tourists have never seen and shows you things you will want to forget.
In a few paragraphs he can sketch out whole lives. He blends and blurs the colours on his canvas like an impressionist painter. A fear-filled teenage scuffle is inseparable from the eroticism of the touch of a woman’s breast. Neapolitan songs mingle with Ray Charles and the sounds of old men playing belote. Tomatoes, basil, bay, meatballs, garlic and red wine merge with the scent of the sea as it crashes against the rocks, recalling the stories of Homer and Conrad peddled by an anarchist bookseller on Cours Julien.
This is very specific writing. The plot is dense but fully explained. I understood it finally but I didn’t enjoy it until I read the book a second time. Then I fell in love with it.
This is not a thriller. It is a celebration. It is a poem. It is a classic French crime novel. Mediterranean Noir. Making beauty out of chaos.
I should probably point out before I begin this review that I have watched the Opus Arte production of it on DVD several times, with subtitles, and it is largely thanks to the skill of the actors that I have managed to understand some of it. Trystan Gravelle as Berowne and Michelle Terry as the Princess of France are particularly brilliant.
By which I mean I can understand what they are saying.
But all the actors and actresses are excellent. I am always moved by the two songs at the end, which are sung by the whole ensemble. The actors’ voices are both clear and resonant. The harmonies are magical. But the voices and the harmonies merely carry the words and it is the words that somehow, every time I hear them, cut right through everything and stun me.
If you know the words you might think I am exaggerating. I’m not. The words are very simple but they cut very deeply.
The imagery in these songs is very clear. We see the flowers in the meadows and hear the cuckoos in the trees and we feel the fear of married men that their wives are being unfaithful. Such is the power of spring.
The imagery of winter is even more vivid. Dick, the shepherd, is blowing on his fingers, Tom is bringing in firewood, milk is frozen in the pail, Marian’s nose is red and raw, crabs are hissing in a bowl and an owl is hooting while greasy Joan “doth keel the pot.”
What a spectacular way to end a piece of entertainment that is all about the convoluted wordplay of men and women in the courts of Europe. No, it seems to say, it is not a story about kings and princesses. It is about Dick, Tom, Marian and Joan. It is about simple English folk. Yes, and Chinese ones too. It is about all of us.
In spite of all the dizzying wordplay, the message is very simple. You learn about life not from books, not from making oaths of celibacy and studying hard, but from giving yourself to life and experiencing it. Love is an especially powerful teacher for it lives not alone in the brain but courses through all our senses and gives to every power a double power.
There is hardly a scene that doesn’t celebrate love, erotic love, physical love, lust and passion.
But in the end the lovers do not win the hands of the women they love. The women make them wait. A year and a day. Which, as Berowne wryly points out, is “too long for a play.”
This is not a happy comedy. It is rueful. It is full of fear.
In this respect it is very truthful. Life is like that. Erotic love is like that. Whatever is intense is never without some element of dread, of difficulty and pain. Although, it may, while it lasts, spur us on to magnificent flights of eloquence and wit.
Parts of this play, I should add, are hilarious. I have never laughed so much at a play as I did at this one. Even though I do not understand every phrase, I find this far more enjoyable than English TV comedies. It is still, after so many years, English drama at its very best.
I’ve mentioned somewhere in another book review that I regularly listen to audio books in order to improve my English. There’s nothing more embarrassing than mispronouncing a cool word dropped into a hot conversation. A mangled “progeniture” could have dampened the squib of many a top drawer English gentleman with whom I’ve mingled. Without the right guide, simple words like “taut” and “tighten” can prove an insurmountable obstacle to those of us from foreign parts.
So I am a target consumer of the latest audio developments from Amazon. And I was delighted by Amazon’s video for their Whispersync technology that shows an attractive woman reading and/or listening to a sizzling erotic book in bed, in the shower, in a meeting, at lunch, on the train, and, finally, in bed again. I was delighted not just by the technology but also by the choice of book. An erotic book. A literary erotic book. Not this one, by Charlotte Stein, as it happens, but it might easily have been.
What a ringing endorsement of my favourite reading matter! They have got it so right, I thought to myself. But of course they have got it right. For if anyone knows how technology has changed our reading habits, it’s those clever researchers at Amazon.
Let’s face it. One of the joys of a kindle and an iphone is being able to load it up with steamy texts to digest in private not just at home but at lunch, on the bus, on the train, at the doctor’s … everywhere!
But being sophisticated readers we do not want rubbish on our gadgets, do we? We do not want detritus.
And with Charlotte Stein’s gorgeously svelte novel we certainly do not get detritus. This book is sophisticated and elegant. It turns you on and gets you thinking at the same time. It’s light but it’s so cleverly light that it’s heavy, dark and deep.
I won’t summarise the story, since discovering the plot is one of the pleasures of the book. This is an author who knows how to take control. Her skill is quite thrilling. She unfolds the narrative with enviable panache.
How can you write a dirty story without being crude? you might ask. Well, but that’s just it. Charlotte is in control because while she’s clever, she is also crude. Compellingly crude.
So get under the covers with Charlotte, and on the bus and in the kitchen and in the bath. The audio book is available from Audible and, take it from me, every word is beautifully pronounced.
So, Philip Roth introduced this to me; Saul Bellow, the God of American letters wrote it; and Martin Amis — dreamy, cultured, super-sexy-son-of-iconic-Kingsley, Martin Amis — warmly recommended it. So how could I not give it 5 stars?
Well, to be honest, it nearly drove me out of my mind.
I have probably missed the point of it. I can sense Mr. Bellow nodding his venerable head and wagging an accusatory finger.
“The mixture of self-obsession and intellectual posturing that you found so dreary was, young lady, the whole point.”
Herzog is trapped and defeated by his own intelligence just as I was nearly trapped and defeated by this florid and extremely intellectual novel.
I have heard Herzog called a daring novel of ideas. I think the really big idea here is that when your (second) wife leaves you for your best friend and you discover that your ideas stink, you start to feel very depressed. Let me tell you, that’s nothing. Herzog didn’t know how lucky he was. Amazon hadn’t even been thought of back then. In the sixties American writers like Herzog had it really good!
Oh, but don’t forget that it’s a comedy. It is, thank goodness, ironic.
Woody Allen, though, it’s not. I saw another of Woody’s films the other day and — I have to be honest, I loved it. Blue Jasmine. Wow! Woody Allen writes sensational dialogue. In Blue Jasmine, even though the story is really depressing, the artistry is uplifting.
I didn’t feel uplifted by Herzog. I just felt, well, depressed.
Yet Herzog recovers. He manages, through the persistence of his irrepressible intelligence, to reforge and revive his sense of his writerly identity.
He learns to accept himself as he is … just a human being.
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it’s a really big idea. And it takes Herzog a long time and a lot of dense thinking to get there.
You might not need to go on that journey. If you already accept who you are, that’s fine. You don’t need to read this.
But if you’re a literary young lion and you want to know where you fit in … well, maybe not even then. Not anymore. This was 1964. Life and American letters have moved on.
I was going to start this review by saying that this novel gives the lie to anyone who says you can’t teach people to write.
Of course you can teach people to write. You can teach people to drive, which is a lot harder than writing. You can teach them to build bridges across impossible spaces, put up those massive, bristling skyscrapers in New York and Shanghai, get oil from the desert, make rockets and missiles and sell them to countries worse off than you so they can almost but not quite destroy each other. You can teach people to enslave entire populations and justify it with plausible rhetoric that makes it look like you are a philanthropist and benefactor.
So of course you can teach people to write.
It’s just sentences. One after another.
We can’t all write beautifully, I’ll admit. Even after a lot of lessons at top schools like Berkeley and Columbia, where Rachel K learned to write, it takes a lot of patience and practice to write something like this:
The rain let up, and wind was vacuuming out the last low, ragged clouds as La Maziere continued along the Malecon, looking back periodically to be sure no one was following him. The moon appeared, glowing like a quartered orange section that had been ever so lightly sucked, its flat edge thinned and translucent.
He turned and headed up La Rampa, in the direction of the Tokio. He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, her legs painted in prison chain-link, as smearable as when he’d last left his handprints on her soft and unathletic thighs, six months earlier.
The references to the rain and the moon are fairly standard. You’ll find paragraphs starting that way in every half-decent detective, romance or horror story. Rachel gives them a bit more intensity than many writers. There is some close observation there. Maybe the description of the moon is even a bit laboured.
But I admire enormously the second paragraph. I admire it and it gives me great pleasure. I can read it again and again.
She could have said something like “He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, still exactly as her remembered her from six months earlier.”
But no, instead we get a vividly visual and tactile memory of what exactly it is that La Maziere remembers, her painted-on fishnet stockings, rendered with that wonderfully evocative word “smearable”, her soft thighs, susceptible to his “handprints”. What an image!
There are many paragraphs like this in the novel, which give it a compelling forward momentum. I not only go back and saunter but I also race onward, eager for the next delicious frisson, which is at once sensual, intellectual and literary.
The narrative sections depicting La Maziere are probably my favourite ones in the novel. I love the way Rachel is so cool and wise in showing us his brutish, predatory and often childish responses to women. As a narrator, she is aloof. But the insights she gives us into the way people think are astonishingly intimate. She does this without irony, or an irony so faint and empathic that it is ambivalent if it is there at all.
La Maziere doubted going to Japan would convince him that femininity was the art of walking in stilettos, that it had much to do with poise or surfaces, makeup and neck ribbons. Whatever female essence was, he had caught it only fleetingly, a thing women reflected when they were least aware. He couldn’t name this quality but suspected it had something to do with invisibility, a remainder whose very definition was predicated on his inability to see it.
These insights lingered long in my imagination. Reading this novel was like being plunged into lots of different lives and experiencing strange situations with the freshness and immediacy of a child. It was revelatory and inspiring. It was healing. It made me happy.
I was going to start this review this way but then I read through the comments on Goodreads and I thought, “Oh no, I’m wrong! Rachel can’t write, after all. She has failed to please so many readers, many of whom struggled to finish the book.”
I learned of a new literary genre: “LOB – left on board”.
Perhaps you can’t teach writing, then. Those world-leading writing schools have failed us and failed Rachel K.
What to do? Bin my review? Re-think my literary touchstones? Doubt my judgement? Throw in the towel?
I don’t know. Writing is hard. Writing is really hard. Teaching people to write must be even harder. All right, then. It’s impossible.