Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Vera BrittainThat Vera Brittain chose to name her autobiography a Testament, at first seems like an assertion of her intellectual inclinations, particularly in light of the decision she made to pause her hi-brow Oxford University studies when the First World War began as her closest friends, her fiancé Roland and brother Edward all signed up to participate, one by one departing for France.

She had fought hard to be accepted into Oxford, at a time when women were not exactly welcome, even her own family and most of their social peers thinking it a waste of time. It remained important but while those she was closest to were sacrificing everything, it felt indulgent to be doing anything intellectual and more than this, she volunteered to become a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse as she sought the diversion of physically demanding work to lessen the idle hours of mental anguish concerning her male contemporaries at war.

But Testament is more than one woman’s intellectual account, it is evidence of a generation’s stunted youth, a youth stolen by war and loyalty, one that for the men who participated, would continue to be acknowledged and remembered, their efforts appreciated and honoured. For Vera Brittain it would bring grief, disappointment and disillusionment.

She recalls one of her last bittersweet moments, punting up the river in Oxford with her friend Norah, whom she would not see again after the end of that term.

‘No evening on the river had held a glamour equal to that one, which might so well be the last of all such enchanted evenings. How beautiful they seemed – the feathery bend with its short, stumpy willows, the deep green shadows in the water under the bank, the blue, brilliant mayflies which somersaulted in the air and fell dying into the water, gleaming like strange, exotic jewels in the mellow light of the setting sun.

I had meant to do such wonderful things that year, to astonish my fellows by unprecedented triumphs, to lay the foundations of a reputation that would grow ever greater and last me through life; and instead the War and love had intervened and between them were forcing me away with all my confident dreams unfulfilled.’

Malta Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain, 3rd from left, in Malta, WWI

Her nursing efforts took her out of the northern provinces of England for good, away from studies at Oxford, to a military hospital in London until events would propel her to volunteer for foreign assignment, taking her to Malta and then close to the front line in France for the remaining years of the war.

Her account is all the richer for the journals she kept from 1913 to 1917 and rather than presenting them in full, she uses extracts to bring the era to life, sharing the angst and idealism of her young age, narrating it from the wisdom of early middle age, for she was 40 years old before she would finally see the much revised autobiography in print.

The book is full of snippets of letters to and from Vera and her fiancé Roland and her brother Edward, they were her life blood, her motivation to face the relentless days in the hospital, where their work offered so much and yet did so little to stem the flow of blood and severed limbs, pain and hopelessness.

The letters that pass between Vera and Roland reveal the slow loss of hope, optimism and valour as they struggle to find meaning in war. Despite the often depressing content, they are fortunate to have each other, writing letters prolifically, drawing each other deeper into a love that they knew could be destroyed on any day.

After the war, Vera returns to Oxford and finds herself isolated. She has difficulty articulating her experience in a way that is understood and instead invites scorn and derision. A new generation of youth has swept up behind her and they have little time for the lessons that might be gleaned from a mature student who forsook her youth for volunteer nursing abroad. She gets involved in the debating society, and in one of the more excruciating passages in the book, valiantly tries to prove her point only to discover it will she who is taught the lesson.

‘In the eyes of these realistic ex-High-School girls, who had sat out the war in classrooms, I was now aware that I represented neither a respect-worthy volunteer in a national cause nor a surviving victim of history’s cruellest catastrophe; I was merely a figure of fun, ludicrously boasting of her experiences in an already démodé conflict. I had been, I suspected, largely to blame for my own isolation. I could not throw off the War, nor the pride and the grief of it; rooted and immersed in memory, I had appeared self-absorbed, contemptuous and ‘stand-offish’ to my ruthless and critical juniors.’

Vera’s hope and her life purpose after the war, was to try to understand and then participate in any action that could prevent humanity from making the same terrible mistakes that caused the loss of so many lives. She changed her focus to History and searched for proof of anything that had been put in place to prevent such destructive hostilities from wiping out a generation of youth. She found what she was looking for in treaties and agreements and became an international speaker for the League of Nations attempting to advance understanding and awareness among the common population.

The book impressed me with its honesty, particularly as Vera Brittain was not afraid to portray her flaws; through the extracts from her journals we have a real sense of the character she was in her twenties and though she is the same person after the war and we recognise her inclinations, her direction in life is permanently altered by the experiences of those years.

The combination of experiencing the present through her diary and letters and her observations from the maturity of having survived war and gained some distance from it, from which to observe her former self, provides the reader a unique insight into humanity.

For me, it was a gripping read and although we learn much of the story in the opening introduction, it does nothing to lessen the effect as we witness Vera receiving news she has dreaded from the beginning and more than the individual events, the observation of emotional ups and downs and the effect of war on a generation seen from a young woman’s perspective is more insightful than any rendition of battles or victories I have ever read.

If the prospect of reading a 600 page book seems daunting, look out for the movie coming out in 2015!

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Four wives and an addiction to marriage. Despite the difficulty he had remaining faithful, Hemingway didn’t like being single, he liked his women to be contracted to him and then to have his liberty.

Though not a huge fan of his work, being more of a Steinbeck admirer than Hemingway, his connection to France and that group of Americans referred to as the lost generation, those who stayed or returned to Europe after the war, has ensured another kind of following and spawned an entire collection of literature, that which reimagines the lives of the artists, writers, their wives, mistresses and hangers-on. So I am one of those who enjoys reading more about him, than reading his actual work.

Thus far, I enjoyed meeting Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife through Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s wife in Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda and Gertrude Stein and others in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He even made an appearance in Francisco Haghenbeck’s The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo while she was hanging out in Paris with Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keefe and the Surrealists.

Mrs HemingwayNaomi Wood joins the club of authors channelling the voices of expat writers wives who lived in Paris, fascinating not just because they were the wives of men who wrote famous stories, but because they are women who made the decision to abandon the comfortable and familiar, to leave their country and family behind.

Both Hadley Richardson and Zelda Fitzgerald arrived in the shadow of their husbands dreams, without any ambition other than to be a faithful and supportive wife. As such, they encountered innumerable challenges in trying to create a satisfactory home life in a foreign country.

All of Hemingway’s wives spent time living in Paris, both the city and the man the thread that bound them together. Of the four, Martha and Mary perhaps fared better, both working journalists living there on their own terms, with their own purpose outside of marriage.

The book is structured in four equal parts, each dedicated to one wife and starts by portending the end, scenes that evoke the sense of an ending while they also contain the feminine distraction that signals the introduction of the next potential marriage candidate. Not one of the wives will be immune to the repetitive Hemingway pattern. It is a pattern he repeats all his life until the brutal ends.

With each end, we witness the beginning and each wife is witness to the new arrival and a foreshadowing of her demise. The novel centres around how he entered and exited these relationships without dwelling on the mundane, the structure keeping up the pace and instilling a sense of anticipation in the reader, wanting to know what could have happened in between times to change things.

“Sitting beside this woman to whom Ernest as already dedicated a poem, Martha recognizes Mary suddenly for what she is: her ticket out of here. This morning she saw that Ernest won’t let her break things off if there’s any chance he’s going to be alone. What he fears is loneliness, and whatever brutish thoughts he has when he is left untended. Only is he is assured of another wife will he let his present wife go.”

Like a poem, there is symmetry to the four wives and while they all love their husband and support him, none can prevent his inclination towards self-destruction, his propensity for excess. It is an insightful book in the way it presents the four relationships, carefully chosen scenes depicting the emergence and decline of their relationship.

We witness the relationships come and go like waves rising out of the ocean, resplendent at their peak, despite containing the knowledge of their inevitable destiny, to crash, disappear and reform anew. Hemingway rode the waves for as long as he could, writing prolifically, often using his own experiences as his subject matter. Perhaps he finally made it to the foreshore and saw the metaphoric waves for what they are, water rising and falling until it inevitably reaches the shore and destroys itself.

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

A worthy addition to the collection of literature that imagines the lives of Hemingway, his wives and the lost generation.

Family Heirlooms by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares

My first read of Brazilian literature, read while the World Cup Football was playing out, though I admit to watching very few of the games, and none after my 11-year-old son left for a holiday with his Grandparents, no longer here to insist I stay up and watch the game with him. But Brazilian literature, why yes please!

Family HeirloomsFamily Heirlooms was written by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated by Daniel Hanh. Born in 1930 in Sao Paulo, she wrote both fiction and non-fiction and was the recipient of many literary awards including the highest honour, the Jabuti Prize for this novella, now available for the first time in English.

It is the story of Maria Bráulia Munhoz, a widow whose nephew Julião is acting as her secretary, though not entirely trusted by his Aunt and especially after the news he brings her in the opening pages about her family heirloom.

The family heirloom brings back the memory of her husband, the judge, who brought it to impress her and her family. It is symbolic of their relationship, an item of great beauty and admired by all, though deceptive, multi-faceted, rarely seen for what it truly is.

Pigeon blood ruby

Pigeon blood ruby

Regardless of the deception, Maria maintains her honour, dignity and the illusion of her marriage long after her husband has departed. She uses her naiveté as a tool for her own survival, for as long as she continues to live with the perception of normalcy, so it continues to reign in her life. Like the emperor in his new clothes, she wears her heirloom with pride.

Maria reminds me a little of the mother figure in Carmen LeForet’s Nada, attempting to retain her bourgeois respectability despite evidence to the contrary, though she never allows us to feel sorry for her, for she makes of her situation exactly what she wishes it to be and insists that everyone sees it her way too. She is indeed a survivor.

An enjoyable, thought-provoking read of illusion, deception, acceptance and survival.

Sula, Toni Morrison

SulaA farmer promises freedom and a piece of land referred to as Bottom, to his slave if he performs some difficult chores. The town of Medallion grows up around the farmland, looking down on the valley where the more fertile land and the white folks live.

The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, ‘Oh no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.

‘But it’s high up in the hills,’ said the slave.

‘High up from us,’ said the master, but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven, the best land there is.’

It’s the town where Sula and Nel grow up in the 1920’s. Both are only children, Nel raised in her mother’s quiet, orderly neat home that oppresses her and keeps her protected and Sula in the home of her infamous grandmother Eva Pearce, a woman who hasn’t come downstairs in years and may or may not have done despicable things before she became one-legged and runs a kind of boarding house for vagrants.

“a household of throbbing disorder constantly awry with thins, people, voices and the slamming of doors”

In childhood, the two girls differences are insignificant, they revel in each other’s company, they test the boundaries of their community and environment, they experience joy and witness horror. They bury the past until it returns to haunt them in adulthood, when they can no longer avoid who they were always destined to be, thanks to the judgments and perceptions of others and the behaviours of those who went before them. And themselves.

“Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.”

The book is separated into two parts, the early 1920’s during the girls childhood and the late 30’s, early 40’s when Sula returns and creates a disturbing ripple throughout the small community, no longer used to her carefree ways, having forgotten the inclinations of the female characters she was spawned from. She becomes estranged from them all. Except one.

It is about the innocence and bonds of childhood, secrets between friends, the inclination to follow the well-trodden path of those who have gone before, despite the desire for freedom and individuality and the reluctance of others to see them any differently.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Her books are almost always the perfect size of a novella and every one of Toni Morrison’s stories I have read brings so much more than the sum of its pages to the reader in terms of things to consider, long after the last page is turned.

Her language is poetic, her characters resplendent with their flaws, they speak for the one and the many and show us ourselves, the parts we hide from view, that which is judged from outside and the inclination to judge without knowing.

 

Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange #Memoir #Giveaway

Good Morning

Thanks to the publisher Viking, Penguin-Random House, one lucky US reader can win a copy of Zelda la Grange’s memoir Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, an in-depth account of her 20-year dedication to her employer Nelson Mandela.

Win a Copy!

To enter the draw, leave a message below or on the book review post here. Only US readers with a valid postal address are able to enter sorry. Entries close Sunday 3 August.

An Additional Entry!

Share one of your favorite quotes from Nelson Mandela to gain an additional entry.

You can find a list of quotes here on Goodreads.

Bonne Chance!

 

Good Morning, Mr Mandela

Mandela Day

Today, 18 July is Nelson Mandela Day, it was the date of his birthday and the day he married his wife Graça Machel. I discovered this yesterday as I was nearing the end of Zelda la Grange’s memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela as she helped with the plan to advocate to the UN to try to make 18 July International Nelson Mandela Day, after receiving a letter of congratulations from Bono for Mandela’s ninetieth birthday celebrations held in Hyde Park, London. He wrote:

“Happy Birthday Madiba. I am working to make July 18th a public holiday in every country that acknowledges that the struggle of Nelson Mandela is not over until every individual who yearns for freedom has the chance to grasp it. I believe your birthday should be an occasion around the globe to honour those who still struggle.” Bono, U2

Good MorningWhen I saw this memoir was due for release I didn’t know anything about Zelda la Grange, but after reading this interview by John Carlin in The Guardian from 2008, I decided to find out more and finished reading it today.

Zelda la Grange was born in 1970 in East Johannesburg, South Africa to a white Afrikaans family. Her father worked in construction and her mother was a teacher. The family wasn’t rich, but being white, they enjoyed the privileges of their race, benefiting from the apartheid regime through access to health, education and a strong sense of entitlement. It wasn’t something she ever thought about, it was the way they lived, they accepted it and had little knowledge of how these policies affected black and coloured people. They were racist.

“As a child it is easy to follow when you grow up in an environment that is safe. Perhaps if I had been oppressed, didn’t have access to a decent school, a proper house, electricity and water, I would have asked different questions, and my brain would have developed into being more inquisitive about injustice at an early age.”

Not knowing what she wanted to do with her life, she enrolled in a course to become an Executive Secretary. When Mandela was voted President she was working in a government Human Resources Department and heard there was a job opening in the administrative department of the President’s office.

It was to be the beginning of a twenty-year career working for Nelson Mandela, first in his capacity as President and then when he left the government, she would be the one person he chose to take with him, to maintain in his employ for life.

Zelda la Grange served Nelson Mandela for around 20 years and you could say she gave her life to him as she had little personal existence outside her working life, so loyal was she to the man who handpicked her to be that loyal employee. Ever the strategist, he chose a woman whose skills complimented his own, she compensated for his weakness and allowed him to continue to focus on his strengths by taking care of all the things that needed to go on behind the scenes to ensure safe passage and no surprises. She was a perfectionist, though she doesn’t admit that in the book, working often through the night than have anything go wrong and was completely obsessed with every little detail.

Zelda owns up in the opening pages that this book is her story and so doesn’t contain great political insights into South Africa or its policies, nor does she ever break the trust she had with Nelson Mandela and say anything he wouldn’t have approved of. One gets the impression that she could have said so much more and perhaps even did, but any excesses have been cut from the first draft and what we read here is a clean, if somewhat lacking version of the events of those twenty years they worked together.

The book reads like a diary of events, which can become tedious, especially as the language is quite prosaic, just as the job must have been, however she is clearly passionate and dedicated to serving the man she referred to as Khulu or Grandfather and he referred to her as Zeldini. Their relationship was extremely close, but always with a respectful and appropriate distance, as was inherent in both their natures.

It is an incredible record of those years and the many voyages they made, people met and funds raised for various humanitarian projects they launched, even if we miss the perspective of the man himself.  In telling her story, she pays tribute to her boss and has created a record of her great respect and need to ensure that all those associated with him, from friends to celebrities to politicians were adequately taken care of. She never stoops to gossip, takes care not to say anything negative about the family, although you can sense the unspoken tension underneath, after all they did bar her from the funeral activities and if it wasn’t for the generosity of Mandela’s wife, Mrs Machel, she would not have attended at all.

An interesting account and makes me even more curious to read Mandela’s own words and gain an insight into what was going on inside his mind during these years.

Today's Google Doodle

Today’s Google Doodle

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

14 July La Fête Nationale: A Salmagundi of French Literature

Prise de la Bastille by   Jean-Pierre Houël Source:Wikipedia

Prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël
Source:Wikipedia

Today is a holiday here in France, marking the celebration of la fête nationale or as we know it in English Bastille Day, commemorating 14 July 1789 when the population fearing an attack by the royal military stormed the Bastille prison and released the many political prisoners in what became a symbol of the end to the rule of the monarchy and the beginning of independence.

There will be a military parade in the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris and here in Aix-en-Provence and most towns in France there will be organised displays of fireworks to commemorate.

To celebrate the National Holiday, I am following the initiative of Marina Sofia at Finding Time To Write to highlight some recently read and upcoming French reads, now available in English, here is my salmagundi of French Literature!

Click on the title to read the review and read to the end to find the definition of that tasty word for the day Salmagundi:

Two French Books I am looking forward to reading:

Poisoning (3)

The Poisoning Angel by John Teule

translated by Melanie Florence

This book is actually to be published today 14 July 2014 and the author is a well-known name in French contemporary literature. In fact I have one of his books in French on the shelf already.

This one is based on a true but gruesome story of one of the most notorious serial poisoners that France has ever known and was described by the Sunday Telegraph as:

“a bawdy romp one minute, a gruesome tragedy the next. The writing is beautiful, witty, grisly and moving, and reeks of authenticity.”

Let’s hope all that comes off in translation.

Vatican Cellars

The Vatican Cellars by André Gide

translated by Julian Evans

This book will be published in August 2014 to mark the centenary of the book’s first publication. It is set in the 1890’s around a group of ingenious fraudsters who claim that the Pope has been imprisoned and a false Pope enthroned in his place.

I haven’t read anything by this author, but he sounds like he caused quite a sensation with this novel and others, as he took it upon himself to explore morality in his work and was a major influence on the writing of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947 and one year after he died (in 1951) his works were placed on the Vatican’s list of banned books.

Three French Books I Read This Year:

Nagasaki (2)

Nagasaki by Eric Faye

translated by Emily Boyce

A short novella, based on a true story of an event that happened in Japan, that will make you check your fridge contents and ensure you lock the door at night.

Foundling2

The Foundling Boy by Michel Deon

translated by Julian Evans

Coming of age story of a young boy left as a baby on a doorstep, who grows up and has an insatiable need to travel and experience the world. The sequel soon to be translated into English as well.

People in Photo

The People In the Book by Hélène Gestern

translated by Emily Boyce,Ros Schwartz

A wonderful epistolary novel about a young woman searching for answers about events in her mother’s life before she was born, a photo provides a clue to those she knew.

Two Great Books Set in France:

All the Light

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

Paris and Saint-Malo pre and during WWII following the lives of two children and their growth into adolescence, Marie-Laure who lost her sight at six and Werner who lost his parents and is raised in an orphanage. An excellent story that leads to the crossing of paths of these two characters and wonderfully evocative of place.

I Always Loved You

I Always Loved You

by Robin Oliveira

An insightful historical novel about the American painter Mary Cassatt, her life in late 1800’s Paris as she struggles to establish her name in the art world, enduring a life-long though fractious relationship with the impressionist painter and sculptor Edgar Degas.

Salmagundi:

  1. a mixed dish consisting usually of cubed poultry or fish, chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions, oil, etc., often served as a salad.
  2. any mixture or miscellany.

 Bonne Fête!