Eugene Onegin – Chapters Three & Four

Elle était fille, elle était amoureuse.

Jacques-Charles-Louis Clinchamps de Malfilâtre

Tatyana Eugene Onegin

January 25 – The Feast of Tatiana

What better day to write about these chapters, January 25 being the feast day of Saint Tatiana in Russia, a symbol of women and celebrated as a student festival. Both the name and the day have become even more popular since Alexander Pushkin made her the love interest of his epic poem.

Chapters Three & Four

Eugene Onegin inquires as to how his friend the poet spends his evenings and thus finds himself invited to join him for a family evening at the home of Olga and Tatyana, where they receive warm, old-fashioned hospitality, though afterwards he cannot remember which girl was Olga and which Tatyana. While the evening failed to ignite significant interest in our hero, it did set tongues wagging among the locals.

Conjecture found unending matter:

there was a general furtive chatter,

and jokes and spiteful gossip ran

claiming Tatyana’s found her man;

The girl who spends her hours immersed in romantic novels let her imagination run wild and fell for the insinuations, if not the man himself, suffering from a love sickness of her own making, culminating in a letter (in French) to the imagined hero she has shaped from the form of Eugene Onegin. A baffled Onegin, clearly does not read the same literary genre.

Who taught her an address so tender,

such careless language of surrender?

Who taught her all this mad, slapdash,

heartfelt, imploring, touching trash

fraught with enticement and disaster?

I can’t help but laugh, it is perhaps the poetic form combined with the ignorance of the hero, this bringing together of polar beings, to create such a discordant clash of romantic versus pragmatic. And so we wait to learn what will pass, when by chance the two meet, and Tatyana must listen to the unfeeling hero speak from a detached but well intended heart, warning her against baring her soul so easily in future. Though it is true, he tolerates and listens easily to similarly themed devotions from his friend the poet, for whom such outpourings are his raison d’être.

But I was simply not intended

for happiness – that alien role.

Should your perfections be expended

in vain on my unworthy soul?

Saint TatianaAnd finally the long autumn and winter bore him and he agrees to a second visit, one that will fall on Tatyana’s name day celebration!

Impressions of Tatayana and Olga

Tatyana is distant and aloof socially, yet vulnerable to the roller coaster of emotions she reads and studies at length in her romantic novels. Her falling in love is not as such inspired by meeting Onegin or anything he says or does in their first encounter, it is by the idea of him inflamed by the wagging tongues of neighbours, that allow her, now that she has some distance from the man himself, to imagine herself in love. She has a need to express herself and because she hesitates to ever do so in person, pours her emotion into the written word – a letter.

Olga we only see through the eyes of the enraptured poet Lensky, he is always with her, walking with her, reading to her, writing poems about her, he gives and receives love easily and neither of them appear subject to the more tumultuous vagaries of passionate love.

Onegin’s Reaction to Tatyana?

An almost fatherly response, he was concerned that she should not respond in the same manner when next she looks for love, outwardly he shows little emotional response to her revelations, however there is a hint that the words may have affected him at a more sub-conscious level that has yet to make its way into his more intellectual self. Fortunately, he does show careful consideration for her feelings, by refraining at least from criticising her too harshly or outrightly rejecting her. Ironically, it is his constant boredom that will lead back to the warm hospitality of her family home.

Le Grand Meaulnes

Le Grand Meaulnes

How Does it Contrast With Another Classic Romantic Novel?

I can only compare it with the most recent classic romantic novel I have read, though it was written nearly 100 years later, Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes whose male characters are more afflicted by romantic notions in the vein of Tatyana, than Eugene Onegin. In Fournier’s novel and in his own personal experience, it is the women who dole out the practical advice and suggest that the young man is too young, only for him to become completely obsessed with her.

Overall, these chapters are much more dramatic and throw us deep into the story, they entertain, they shock and delight. It is a pleasure to read and I am looking forward to what the next two chapters will bring.

Click here to read the follow up review of Eugene Onegin Chapters 5 & 6

Lost Cat, Found Humour

There’s little enough humour in our lives and when there is, we don’t always appreciate it or even get it. I admit there is a lot of humour that doesn’t work on me, it’s not enough to know the English language, the cultural  and political context is critical and as for French humour – way too difficult! – however I do admire anyone able to write with humour, speak with it or just be it!

012413_1956_LostCatFoun1.jpgCaroline Paul has something of the gift, in a kind of self-deprecating way, and her book Lost Cat, allows us to have a few laughs at her expense, although they are situations that could equally apply to many of us and especially cat and dog owners.

She has written this light and entertaining tale which will appeal to all ages, a story of love, desperation and the many tools available to obsessed animal lovers in search of a missing pet. It is a true story which comes with a caveat, three in fact, (1) painkillers, (2) elapsed time, (3)normal confusion for people of a certain age.

Knowing that the author has previously written a book about her job as a fire-woman,  it came as less of a surprise to learn that she was involved in a light plane crash in an ‘experimental plane’. Her sense of humour is established not long after this revelation when hospital staff inform her that she has broken her tibia and her fibula.

“The Tibia and Fibula?!” I said, tasting the blood in my mouth, feeling the bruises on my arm, laughing through my morphine haze. When I explained that these were my cats, the staff just nodded, expressionless; to them, I was just another numskull hallucinating on a gurney. But it was true. Two thirteen –year-old tabbies, affectionately nicknamed Tibby and Fibby, were now wondering where the heck I was and why I hadn’t come home.

The accident leads to a period of enforced convalescence and a bout of the blues ; she is unable to venture out, most likely taking up too much space, both mental and physical in what had been the cats’ territory. The home dynamic has also changed since the author became involved in a new relationship, her partner not exactly a cat lover, although as a graphic artist, she has contributed sketches to the book that add to its entertainment value.

Then, a month into her recovery, without warning, something terrible happens. Tibby disappears.

Caroline panics and in the aftermath of his disappearance indulges every possible theory to find out where he is, from walking the neighbourhood to visiting the pound, from prayer to consulting a psychic. Then five weeks after his disappearance, Tibby returns, just like that.  In perfect health.  He’d even gained half a pound and his coat was as shiny as silk.

Confusion. Jealousy. Betrayal. I thought I’d known my cat of thirteen years. But that cat had been anxious and shy. This cat was a swashbuckling adventurer back from the high seas. What siren call could have lured him away? Was he still going to this place, with its overflowing food bowls and endless treats.

012413_1956_LostCatFoun3.jpg

Allia’s cat Noisette

Rather than accept the fact he is safe and has returned, the author then turns detective to try to figure out where he has been, some place he’s clearly still visiting as he is no longer interested in his food. This when I discover things about animal behaviour and the obsessions of animal owners that have me laughing out loud and wanting to tell everyone about  all the crazy things it is possible to spend your hard-earned cash on when you are under the influence of an animal obsession.

And then I quieten down, remembering I have a ten-year-old who is heading in that direction, big time. I’m just thankful that dinosaurs are extinct or he’d be begging for a pet one of those too! I’m afraid of what will happen when he becomes financially independent, the ‘overflowing with life’ rooms, in the virtual home he has created online, possess no furniture or accessories, unless you call a peacock in the living room an accessory.

Camping Neighbours cat – can you believe this cat goes camping!

Where do our pets go and what do they do, when we’re not around? And why? Aren’t we enough for our furry companions? For animal lovers, these are the ultimate questions. And so began a quest familiar to anyone who has realised that the man in their life isn’t who he seems: the quest to find out where Tibby had been for those five weeks.

This book landed on my lap in a busy work period a little while ago and was the perfect antidote, even if you are not a fan of animals, it is worth reading for the enlightenment of the lengths people will go to, to understand their animal.  I wish this book had been available just before Christmas, it’s the perfect gift. There’s always next Christmas! I’ll be buying multiple copies.

Highly recommended.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy provided by NetGalley on behalf of the publisher.

Mom & Me & Mom

Maya Angelou starts her conversation book by mentioning something people often ask, how it is that she became the women she is, a question she says she has been tempted to respond to using lines quoted from Topsy, the young black girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who said, “I dunno, I just growed.”

Mom Me MomInstead, Angelou has written this thought-provoking tribute, sharing a slew of matriarchal experiences among the many others already shared in her remarkable series of autobiographies, to highlight a little of how she did become that brave, sensitive, adventurous and caring women she is, in part due to the grandmother she loved and the mother she came to adore.

It is a story written with utmost compassion and forgiveness, for this is a woman whose mother admitted when she and husband separated that she could not mother young children, so sent them to live with their grandmother for ten years. Angelou closes the prologue reminding us that love heals and throughout the book will prove that kindness is the greatest gift we can ever give and foster in others.

Love heals. Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.

Vivian Baxter, Maya Angelou’s mother, was the eldest of a large family of mostly boys, for whom threats, intimidation and violence were a part of their way of their life and this petite force was often at the forefront of their skirmishes. Their father encouraged tough boy talk and tasked his daughter with ensuring the boys didn’t soften. Little wonder that after falling in love, marrying and realising that it was a mistake, they were also unable to agree on who should raise their toddlers, they separated and sent the children to their father’s mother in Stamps, Arkansas. Maya was three and Bailey five-years-old.

Ten years later, when their grandmother felt that Bailey had grown too old for Arkansas, when he had reached a dangerous age for a black boy in the segregated South, it was arranged for them to return to their mother in California. Bailey was enthusiastic, Maya much less so. It would be difficult, but for all her flaws, their mother knew how to communicate with her children and didn’t push her mother status on them. Maya decided she would call her ‘Lady’ and her mother’s response to this is one of many small pleasures Angelou offers up in her book.

Maya has a baby very young, without the foundation of a loving relationship, however with the love and support of her mother, this event in no way prevents her from pursuing her life’s dreams and ambitions.

I thought about my mother and knew she was amazing. She never made me feel as if I brought scandal to the family. The baby had not been planned and I would have to rethink plans about education, but to Vivian Baxter that was life being life.

Some years later deciding to marry Tosh tested the mother daughter relationship, Vivian didn’t try to stop her daughter from making what she thought was a mistake, but she chose to leave San Francisco, not wishing to witness the fallout. Like any young women living off the heady ambiance of newly married love, Maya wished to prove her mother wrong.

To begin with she continued doing all the things she loved, the things that made her Maya Angelou, seeing her friends, attending a dance class, going to church and speaking freely about God. However her activities slowly became issues between the young couple, so she stopped them in an attempt to maintain peace between herself and her husband.

At first the dimness is hardly noticeable but not alarming. Then with a rush, the light is vanquished by darkness.

This gem of a book, complete with gorgeous photos, is a wonderful addition to her already masterful collection of autobiographies and chronicles that one relationship that runs through our entire lives, that with our mother. It may not always be easy, but Angelou shares those moments that tested and ultimately strengthened the love and respect they had for each other. She accomplishes it with incredible honesty and selflessness, something that shines through in the brief interview I have linked here. What a wise and loving soul she is.

Interview - Learning to Love My Mother: Maya talks about her mother with a BBC interviewer.

“Exercise patience with yourself first, so you can forgive yourself for all the dumb things you do. Then exercise patience with your children.”

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

What We Expect When We Don’t Expect Much From Love: Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

LudmillaThere Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself. The title itself is intriguing, though if you have read the author before, you will recognise the tendency, she is the bestselling author of There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby.

I took the book with me on a recent visit to London, as my alternative to the kindle, since I have been caught out a couple of times with that little machine dying on me even though the battery wasn’t run down. I have since discovered the 20 second rule. When the kindle fails to come to life when it should, hold it in the on position for 20 seconds to reboot it. Like many gadgets today I’m not sure these things are designed to last, not as long an old-fashioned book anyway. And I have Penguin to thank for sending me a bona-fide book!

The blurbs quote Chekov, Poe, Beckett, Tolstoy and various others to entice you in, making promises that will no doubt encourage dissent; it is a tall order to be compared to literary greats. I haven’t read all those greats, but there is one collection I am reminded of, not because she writes like him, but because the voice is clear from story to story and at the end I am left with the notion that “there is consistency in that voice” and “she says it how it is”.

Carver LoveIf Ludmilla Petrushevskaya reminds me of any writer, it is Raymond Carver and his collection what we talk about when we talk about love. Ironically, when pulling this volume off the shelf, I also find tucked in its last page, a boarding card for a flight from Marseille to London, dated June 2008.

So back to the book.

Seventeen episodes of attempts at love or connection with another, in all their dysfunction, set within the context of post revolutionary Russia when private ownership of housing was forbidden and many family apartments were divided and sub-divided and the space people came to occupy diminished, along with many of their hopes and expectations of each other.

By 1972, when Petrushevskaya published her first story, Moscow was ringed with concrete buildings containing these overcrowded units where the majority of these love stories take place.

Born in 1938 in Moscow, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya never knew family life. Evacuated with her mother to Kuibyshev during the war, she was left there in the care of her aunt and grandmother while her mother returned to Moscow to attend college. Members of the family of “an enemy of the people”, they were treated as pariahs – and were slowly starving. At age eight, Petrushevskaya began to run away from her temporary home and spend summers as a street beggar. Her mother returned after four years and brought her back to Moscow, where they were officially homeless. As a young girl there, Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her insane grandfather’s room, while occasionally renting cots in nearby communal apartments. It was an unsettled, unhappy childhood, one experienced without the consolation of siblings.” Extract from Introduction by translator Anna Summers

The stories are collected into four sections, the first A Murky Fate contains stories of characters who consider entering relationships that are flawed or doomed, in readiness for a chance at that diminished flutter of something that may resemble love. It is not to be moved by these circumstances that we read these stories, it is to bear witness to another’s reality. They are uncomfortable, fatalistic and near-true.

She’ll wait for his long-distance call in a phone booth at the post office. For ten prepaid minutes they’ll become one soul again, as they did over the twenty-four prepaid days of their vacation. They’ll shout and cry across thousands of miles, deceived by the promise of eternal summer, seduced and abandoned.

As we read the stories, our own expectations are so low for these women, that it is possible to experience our own small pleasure in expecting nothing and finding delight in an obscure change in their fortune, even if only for a short period.

I mentioned to Cassie, who reviews this collection here on her excellent blog Books And Bowel Movements, that for me it was as if I was sitting across the table from the writer listening to an oral narration of people she knew, that it reminded me of other tables I have sat at, listening to stories of other women from different cultures and how they found themselves living in this or that country or city, so often lead by the allure of love or the promise of an improved lifestyle.

dollsEach community, era, culture has its stories to share, it disappointments to shed and its eternal hope for future generations, that they may do better. Reading these stories is like reading another chapter in the evolution of humanity and reminds us that we have a long way to go before arriving near any kind of nirvana.

…the day is burning its last, and Milgrom, eternal Milgrom, sits in her little pensioner’s room like a guard at the museum of her own life, where there is nothing at all but a timid love.

Note: This book was kindly made available by the publisher.

Episode 4: Where’s My Baby and Why Isn’t She With Me?

We laughed as the doctor left the room and I tried to remember how to breathe.

I even slept a little throughout that long night until around 5am when we reached the moment when the baby finally arrived. A beautiful tiny baby girl, an almost pained look of relief on her face, happy to have escaped I thought, or is it the other way around, I wonder, pained by that physical confrontation of birth into our harsh world? I only held her for a short while before she was taken away to be further checked, taken to a ward on another level.

We knew that there was a problem in the intestine, the hospital had picked it up at 22 weeks after the scan revealed fluid in the intestine making it balloon slightly. Due to this effect, they had been able to observe peristalsis, the smooth muscle contraction of the intestine wall, which moves food or liquid along the intestine. Ordinarily, we should not be able to see this, but if there is some kind of blockage, it is possible to observe.

It had caused us significant anxiety, particularly because the doctor could neither guarantee nor predict an outcome. There were two options he had said. Either the baby will require an operation immediately after birth, or you will take the little one home and at some time in the near future it will be necessary to return to the hospital, because it will be a problem for him or her to keep food down. In this case, the baby will vomit continuously because the bowel will have ceased to function.

We preferred that the problem be dealt with as soon as problem, but we were not given sufficient information to feel in any way empowered to make any kind of decision. So it often is with hospitals, perhaps believing that too much information can only increase anxiety, it seems as if they withhold it. I’m not so sure it’s a good strategy, being aware of one’s ignorance and feeling powerless are more painful symptoms of anxiety than the harsh dose of reality, complete information might bring, at least in my mind.

I mean, why send a baby home and wait for something terrible like that to happen? What were the risks of the operation? Every question always ended with “It depends. We can’t know exactly until we can see inside.” There was no reassurance, we just had to wait and so I had tried not to absorb too much of the anxiety already flooding through my veins.

Now that the moment had arrived, they seemed to be acting quickly, there was no suggestion of any “wait and see” now. The baby was gone, they’d cleared her breathing passages, shoved a tube up her nose, tied off her umbilical cord, weighed her and taken her out of the room. I know I did get to hold her, but I have no memory or feeling of the bliss of holding my baby after birth; the rush and feeling of panic and anxiety obliterated all that and I only remember the helplessness of not being able to follow and wanting to make sure that someone who I knew and could trust would keep an eye on my baby girl. I hadn’t held her long enough to even remember what she looked like!

The baby is in the post natal ward they told me. I sent Susan immediately to go and find her, I was too weak to get out of bed, but I was desperate for someone to go and see my daughter, to find her and tell me that everything was okay.

“She’s okay” said Susan. “She’s downstairs in an incubator and she’s quiet, you can go and see her once you are up and showered.” I dragged myself to the shower, washed then went down to the ward to see her for myself. There was a place to insert my hands but I couldn’t actually touch her. Barriers, barriers, I sent her all the love and maternal energy my heart could generate; I sent it to her in abundance, through my mind, my heart, my hands, from every cell in my entire being. And I decided to call her Allia.

The nurse came to tell me that Allia would be transferred in a few hours to Great Ormond Street Hospital. She advised me that she would be transported in a specially equipped ambulance designed for babies.

“It is not possible for you to travel with the baby” she continued. “It would be better for you to stay here for the night, you need to recover. Your baby will be okay.”

My baby would be okay she had said. I was not okay. I did not want to be there alone, I did not care about recovering, I wanted to be with her, she needed me, she was about to face something drastic and invasive and they were recommending she do that alone, without me even being in the same building.

I told Susan to go home and get some rest. Other people came to visit me and were shocked to find me there alone. I hated lying there watching the other women with their babies, feeling as if I had abandoned my own, powerless to have kept her. I remembered that my husband was due to arrive back in London that day. We had been unable to reach him.

Someone called from Great Ormond Street Hospital to ask me for parental consent to conduct surgery on our daughter.

“Ordinarily, we would get you to sign a consent form, but as you are not here, we need to get your permission over the telephone” the Doctor explained.

“When will the operation be?” I asked.

“At about eight thirty this evening” he answered. I looked at the clock; it was nearly 6pm already.

“Wait” I said, “I’m coming now.” I went back to the ward to find my husband and my Aunt waiting there for me.

“I need to get out of here” I said. “They’re going to operate on her in two hours and I’m not waiting here while that is about to happen.”

“I’ll take you in my car” said my Aunt. I grabbed my things and the three of us sped out of the Royal Free Hospital and raced towards Russell Square to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.

Next Up in the mother/daughter collaborative story A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 5 : GOSH – A Kind of Neverland

Previous Episodes: Introduction

Episode 1: The Benefits of Insomnia

Episode 2: We are not Living in France!

Episode 3: The Benefits of Contra-Indicated Essential Oils

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady

Kate Summerscale likes to take ordinary people who have been noted for doing some extraordinary thing, though not usually something to be admired – and shares their story in a way that reads like compelling fiction.

Her previous book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House reads like a detective novel and coincided historically with the introduction of the adapted role of a certain type of police officer – that of the detective.  This person was required to use specialist skills to investigate suspicious deaths, such was the case with Mr Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, assigned to investigate the gruesome death of a young family member of a supposedly respectable household in a quiet Wiltshire village, putting all members of the family under suspicion and creating an unprecedented public sensation.

Now she has turned her pen and research skills towards the diary and letters of a Victorian lady, Mrs Isabella Robinson, an impulsive, intellectual woman, widowed young and remarried to an uninterested man who seemed to require nothing more of her than to keep house and children in order, a role she fulfilled, but was not content to be limited to and thus her attentions strayed towards the happily married Dr Edward Lane.

Throughout most of her diary entries he appears not to return her amorous feelings, but Mrs Robinson has the skills of Flaubert (who was prosecuted in the late 1850′s for corrupting public morals with Madame Bovary – a novel considered ‘too repulsive’ for publication in Britain) in expressing both her angst and sexual frustration and perhaps even her fantasies (were they?) with regard to certain men hovering in her vicinity – certainly, as with Flaubert’s prose, there were pages deemed unsuitable and unfit for the eyes of anyone outside the court and the media banned from laying eyes on it for fear of corrupting the public.

Her dramatic verse, which employed few filters would prove to be her undoing and became the sensation of a highly publicised court case, which also straddled a moment in history, when divorce laws were changed to make them easier to obtain, particularly as the law discriminated against women and allowed some terrible situations to endure as a result.

The law stipulated that to secure a divorce, a husband needed to establish just his wife’s infidelity, whereas a woman needed to prove that her husband was not only unfaithful but also guilty of desertion, cruelty or sexual misdeeds such as bigamy, incest, rape, sodomy or bestiality.

Ironic, in that no one questioned Mr Robinson concerning his mistress and two illegitimate children, clearer evidence of infidelity than anything penned by his errant wife.

Queen Victoria

Allowing these situations to be resolved through the Court created a predicament with the population concerning reportage in newspapers, an issue to which even Queen Victoria was said to have addressed.

On 19 December, Reynold’s Weekly, observed that the cases in the Divorce Court ‘seem to indicate that among the high, the moral, the respectable, and the Christian classes…adultery is in a highly flourishing, if not exceedingly rampant, condition.’ A week later Queen Victoria wrote to Lord Campbell, the chief designer of the Divorce Act, to ask if he could suppress some of the stories coming out of the court.

It seems the Queen had no power to stop the presses and received a reply indicating that they were unable to limit the newspaper stories.

Overall, an interesting read and historical context and no doubt opinion continues to be divided on whether Mrs Robinson was hard done by or plain foolish to have committed such desires, whether fantasy or fact to paper.  A woman fifty shades before her time perhaps.

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

The Memory of Love

When I was gifted my kindle by my very kind and book-loving Aunt,  Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love was one of the preloaded titles I was looking forward to reading. I decided to read it now after reading an excellent reflection on it at BookDragon, a consummate reader/listener of stories and one whose choice of book and cross cultural range I admire.

Aminatta Forna was born in Scotland and raised in Sierra Leone, the country where most of this story takes place. She is the daughter of a former Sierra Leonean cabinet minister and dissident, murdered by the state in 1975. She has written the story of three men, whose lives intersect briefly, and who come into contact with each other at the Freetown Central Hospital.

Dr Adrian Lockhart, recently arrived from London has responded to a request to an overseas posting for a government-sponsored psychologist specialising in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), his thoughts and actions suggesting he may be in the midst of a midlife crisis, needing some distance from his life to see it for what it really is. Life in Sierra Leone may allow but doesn’t appreciate such self-centred indulgences and Dr Kai Mansaray, a young local surgeon gives him an honest portrayal of just how people like him are perceived, lacking sufficient equanimity to see it for himself. Despite the frankness, the two become friends and seek out each other’s company with increasing frequency.

Both men experience love and its aftermath, its vulnerability, its brief joy, its destruction and the memory of it, as if it were real, even when it no longer exists.

 For death takes everything, leaves behind no possibilities, save one – which is to remember. He cannot believe with what intensity one can continue to love a person who is dead. Only fools, he believes, think that love is for the living alone.

In addition to his post at the hospital, Adrian helps out at the mental hospital and recognises Agnes, one of his former patients (one visit patients – they visit once and never return).

The people his colleagues sent to him were outpatients mostly, the ones with whom the doctors could find nothing wrong. And afterwards each of his new patients made the same request for medicines, to which Adrian explained he was not that sort of doctor. A nod of acceptance, rather than understanding. None of them ever returned.

Agnes is discharged before Adrian sees her and he becomes intent on trying to resolve the cause of her illness, a fugue, or temporary amnesia, and in doing so he will come too close to the sick, ugliness of the country’s past conflict where sometimes amnesia may be the only respite one has from a brutal reality.

We also meet Professor Elias Cole, an old history professor who taught at Freetown university before and after the 1969 coup, his position afterwards, somewhat elevated than it was previously. He has an obsessive fixation on Saffia, the wife of another Professor, whom he befriends and becomes caught up with unknowingly, leading to an interrogation and a spell in prison, which will change both their lives. He encounters Adrian in the hospital, near the end of his life, seeking an audience to share his story before it is too late. Adrian listens and realises there is more to Professor Cole’s story than he is letting on.

This is a multi-layered story that reveals itself with each encounter, that hints at the traumatic events and psychological destruction of a nation, depicting the constant struggle for survival in a post-war era and the love it’s citizens have for their country despite the difficulties and horrors of the past. There is sacrifice in staying and pain in leaving; there is no real escape, both will suffer, albeit in different ways.

The author, Aminatta Forna

I really enjoyed this book, it was a pleasure to read and consider its characters and what they represented, I loved it for the questions it posed in the mind of the reader, leaving us to come to our own conclusions, for every question could have had an equally valid, if opposite answer, such is life and the characters who inhabit our own reality, there are those who will stand up even it means they will be sacrificed and those who will remain quiet and flourish.

It is as if there are no answers, there are just the decisions we make, that both we and the generations that follow then need to live with and understand.

I recommend listening to this powerful discussion between the BBC’s Bola Masuor and Aminatta Forna on the BBC World Service talking about both The Memory of Love and The Devil that Danced on the Water, the book she wrote about her search for the truth of her father’s fate after he was seized by secret police and later killed.

When you do nothing, what do your children inherit?

*

The plain fact of the matter is that any group will remain potentially conscienceless and evil until such a time as each and every individual holds himself or herself directly responsible for the behaviour of the whole group – the organism of which he or she is part. We have not yet begun to arrive at that point. – from the work of M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie

City of Love

The immense and almighty Notre Dame de Paris

I have been busy retracing the many steps of the monuments of Paris these past few days, so not much time for reading, although I did manage to finish Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent ‘Prodigal Summer’ which I will write more of soon and following on from this glorious visit to Paris, I am now immersed in Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ keeping me in Paris for a few more days yet, albeit the 1920′s.

If you need any more proof that Paris is indeed the city of love, check out this superb photo I took of that beautiful feminine monument ‘La Tour Eiffel’, is that not a beautiful heart shining down on the population?

We took an evening stroll up to the Sacre Cœur cathedral, two minutes from where we were staying.  In fact I was babysitting that evening while friends from New Zealand were at a Bruce Springsteen concert, I have to say it was the best night looking after 3 children ever, practicing french phrases during dinner and an impressive after dinner promenade to one of the city’s marvels.

Here is a detail from one of the tower walls of L’Arc de Triomphe. I love the dramatic detail of the sculptures and wall friezes.

Despite the beautiful blue skies you see, it did indeed rain every day I was in Paris, it reminded me a little of New Zealand, that rain, sun, rain, sun, beautiful green trees.

However, something that only Paris can offer, her history of monarchs, uprisings, revolutions and battles and 60,000 square metres of art works in one museum alone and then there’s the people watching, all chairs facing the street for the best view, it’s amazing what you observe and overhear during the downing of une noisette (small coffee with a dash of milk).

Now back in Aix-en-Provence where the temperatures are consistently hot and as I got out of the car, I am greeted by the incessant noise of the cicadas, who have long announced the debut of summer and witnessed the emergence of one of these gigantic insects from its chrysalis on the wall right next to me, the moment before he too joined that eternal cacophony of sound reminiscent of the season.

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Au revoir Paris, je reviens bientôt.

Summer by Edith Wharton

If ‘Ethan Frome’ is winter, so this, its companion novel is ‘Summer’, though ironically there is less a sense of the season and its metaphoric meaning; perhaps ‘The End of the Summer’ might have been a more apt title.

Edith Wharton was worldly and wealthy, speaking four languages and entertaining future American heiresses in her Paris home, her latter years lived in France. Yet as the range of her works testify, from rural Ethan Frome’  small town New England ‘Summer’ to the more social aspiring ‘House of Mirth’ and ‘Age of Innocence’ she understood and had empathy for those whose lives were lived at the opposite end of the spectrum of her own.

Charity Royall, an eighteen year old girl from the Mountain up there beyond, has been raised by a childless couple from town; she lives with her guardian Mr Royall, now a widow. She knows little and remembers nothing of her parents or that frowned upon community no one ever mentions.

Until the bold, young Architect Lucien Harnus appears, unafraid to ask questions. The more she learns while listening to Mr Royall respond to him, the more insecurity creeps into her being, though there is little outward sign of this change.

Initially we witness her wilful attitude, with which she succeeds in claiming the post of librarian against all other eligible girls in town, despite little interest in the actual job itself. She appears intelligent, adept at identifying opportunity, her questionable ancestry all but obliterated. However, she lacks a female role model and is barely on speaking terms with My Royall after his own near lapse with regard to the carnal instinct. In matters of love and the feminine, Charity is at a disadvantage. Her first experience with a young suitor is telling.

Her heart was ravaged by life’s cruellest discovery: the first creature who had come toward her out of the wilderness had brought her anguish instead of joy. She did not cry; tears came hard to her, and the storms of her heart spent themselves inwardly.

Without giving anything away of the story, the young man wins her over and she will have her summer of joy, but naïveté and a reluctance to assert herself in matters of the heart will compromise her position in this society that values and rewards tradition over love. She considers returning to her people:

There was no sense of guilt in her now, but only a desperate desire to defend her secret from irreverent eyes, and begin life again among people to whom the harsh code of the village was unknown.

It is a tragedy, as we have the impression that this is a young woman rescued from a life of little promise who could have made something of it, who should have, if she had been warned; she is as much a victim of the era she lives in as the lack of a female role model. I couldn’t help thinking about a possible sequel, one where she defies the odds and proves everyone wrong, because that is just the kind of girl she was.

In this respect the story differs from ‘Ethan Frome’ in which we are provided a glimpse into the future regarding what happens next, here Wharton has chosen to either leave that to the reader’s imagination, or her final act will be seen as sufficient evidence to predict a conventional outcome. You decide.

‘Summer’ has recently been adapted to the stage by Julia Stubbs Hughes and the play will focus on the three central characters of the novel, exploring the discovery of love and attraction in a society that restricts both.

It will be showing at the Jack Studio Theatre in South East London from 8 – 26 May 2012 if you happen to be in London. Further details can be found at ‘The Summer Project’.

Dreams, Illusion, Reality – The Paris Wife

Reading Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’ I rapturously turned the pages, captivated in a cathartic way in the character of Hadley Richardson, whose story and perceptions I became absorbed with, whose life and relationships I was invested in as a reader and also as someone who has lived in France for six years. Yet at the end I am left feeling somewhat deceived.

‘The Paris Wife’ explores a brief passage in the life of 28 year old Hadley Richardson, from shortly after the death of her mother, when she meets and after a brief courtship, marries the much younger Ernest Hemingway, until their separation and subsequent divorce. Hemingway is a 21 year old war veteran and struggling journalist with his eyes set on Rome, until the writer Sherwood Anderson, convinces them the future lies in Paris.

The young couple embark on their journey, Hadley doing her best to support her husband and not burden him with her own insecurities. Neither glamorous nor ambitious, she is honest and good and able to provide Hemingway with an emotional foundation and stability that he has not been able to garner since his return from war, or perhaps earlier, when the arrival of a baby brother shattered the illusion of a special bond he believed he had with his mother. It is a pattern that will be repeated in his life, the attempt to recreate a safe, protective feeling akin to childhood with a woman, only for it to fall apart.

It is not long before cracks appear, Hemingway’s foreign assignment to Turkey bring back feelings of despair, displacement and the nightmares of war; walking in the rain, death, sickness and desperation in the air, his esteem low, he brings himself lower by acting on it. We learn this period was preceded by his breaking the ‘exclusive’ work contract with his employers without informing them – signs of a divide within himself – and Hadley’s discomfort with his dishonesty feeds the more paranoid of her instincts.

While in Paris, Hemingway spends his days writing, initially rejecting the cafés with their posing artists, though soon overcomes his distaste and discovers the joy of café life once they develop their own circle of friends. Hemingway’s obsession with corrida (bullfighting) result in numerous visits to Spain accompanied by friends and these sojourns become the basis of his novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ about a group of expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of Fermin in Pamplona.

One of the most striking and memorable moments supports a comment by Hemingway scholar Jamie Barlowe that Hadley Richardson “was a ‘true’ woman and not a ‘new’ woman of the early 19th century” and shows both how removed she was from their group and the reverence Hemingway held for her. Hemingway dedicates ‘The Sun Also Rises’ to Hadley and although she was there in person and recognises much of what happens in the novel, she is the one person from their circle that does not exist between its pages. She is hurt by the exclusion, though spared the humiliation. She was at a loss in the company of Lady Duff, whom Hemingway models the female character on, a honey pot of a woman who, oblivious to the neurotic attentions of the men, was present with a much ignored fiancé and drooled over by Hemingway and Harold who end up in fisticuffs over misplaced jealousies. Hadley’s recognition and special moment come in the most romantic and gory of gestures, when the much admired matador Cayetano Ordóñez makes eye contact with her from the bullring and publicly gifts her the rare token of the bull’s ear, bloody and warm from the soon to be sacrificed animal.

The deception is that the story and the author’s interest continue only as long as she is married to Hemingway, a mere six years, effectively cancelling her out as a character so soon, no longer interesting without the crutch of an infamous husband. Did her life cease to hold interest or meaning beyond those years; are we really only interested in her because she was married to Ernest Hemingway? Sadly it appears so, deceived because it is true, we are to be concerned with her only for the duration of her marriage to Hemingway, despite having come to know her sufficiently to want to know more. She has become a victim of the modern cult of the celebrity, famous only for being linked with someone famous.

I think back to another wife of a famous man I reviewed recently ‘The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine Bonaparte‘. Josephine starts out as a modest character named Rose Tacher whom we are introduced to many years and one marriage before she meets Napoléon Bonaparte; we are fortunate that interest in her isn’t restricted to her marriage to Bonaparte, we are already hooked into her character and have completed an entire novel before Bonaparte even enters the scene.

Despite the deception, I recommend ‘The Paris Wife’ as an alternative, behind the scenes look at the 1920′s lives of the group Gertrude Stein called ‘the lost generation’ and also at the inspiration and experiences that influenced much of Ernest Hemingway’s work penned during this era. But perhaps most of all because McLain introduces us to a woman we can relate to and empathise with, someone we can imagine as a friend or confidante, who aspires to the same things that so many women yearn for, because she allows us to imagine and feel what it must have been like to harbour such simple and honest ambitions while navigating a fresh marriage in a new city and foreign country and culture.