Claudine and Annie (Book 4) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

After her abrupt departure from Paris back to her father’s home in Montigny, to the village home where she grew up, I was curious to know what was to come of our troubled Claudine and her errant husband.

It was something of a surprise to realise that in this fourth book, we are back in Paris, but in the home and seeing through the eyes of a weeping Annie who is the narrator of this fourth book in The Complete Claudine series.

Annie is weeping because her husband of four years Alain, whom she known since she a child and rarely left his side, is about to depart on a boat for Brazil, due to notice of a recent inheritance which necessitates his going there to relinquish assets, prize bulls or something or other!

“Before I had turned thirteen, he was already the master of my life. Such a handsome master! A red-haired boy, with a skin whiter than an egg and blue eyes that dazzled me.”

Annie writes in beautiful notebook he gave her for the purpose of keeping her ‘Diary of his journey’. She reads the list of duties he drew up for her, with his usual solicitous firmness, in which we see reference to Claudine among those she has permission to call on and with which frequency:

“Only one call on Claudine and her husband. Too fantastically unconventional a couple for a young woman to frequent while her husband is away on a long journey.”

However he is more than happy that she spend time with his sister Marthe, about whom he writes:

“My dear Annie will give me much pleasure if she frequently consults my sister Marthe and goes out with her. Marthe has a great deal of good sense and even common-sense under her rather unconventional exterior.”

Annie’s perception of herself at the beginning is defined only in terms of her husband, and her husband’s interests are solely related to himself and how he wishes her to be.

“I don’t know anything…except how to obey. He has taught me that and I achieve obedience as the sole task of my existence…assiduously…joyfully.”

She even goes so far to refer to herself, as if it were a term of endearment as his ‘little slave girl’, a term her husband often called her, of course he says it without malice, with only a faint contempt for my dark-skinned race.

This passive, domestic Annie, grieving for her master husband is something of a disappointment, after the more confident, sensuous and outspoken Claudine, but I’m thankful there is at least an acquaintance, which promises Annie’s potential awakening.

In fact, Annie’s awakening and change in perception begins, soon after, when her sister-in-law makes an unkind comment on a portrait of her brother, likening him to a cockerel, an image thereafter Annie finds hard to remove from her mind, it serves to lift a little the blinkers from her view of this husband.

Parisian friends depart for the summer, to a thermal spa for the cure, to the annual opera festival in Germany, and it is here we see glimpses of Claudine and her husband, showing her grown in confidence within her marriage, having negotiated a way to curb their potentially destructive impulses.

Marthe’s husband is a novelist she continuously pushes to write faster, to hurry deadlines to meet the many financial commitments required to keep their lifestyle in the lavish manner she is accustomed to.

While Annie is able to confide in Claudine, the behaviour of her sister-in-law is too much for her and she decides to return to Paris to consider and prepare for the return of her husband, to make sense of how his absence has changed her.

“To free myself from the obsession – was it really to free myself?…I jumped out of bed and ran to look for Alain’s latest photograph that I had hidden between two sachets.

Whatever had happened? Was I actually dreaming? I could not recognise that handsome young man there. Those harsh eyebrows, that arrogant stance like a cock! No, surely I was mistaken or perhaps the photographer had absurdly overdone the re-touching?

But no, that man there was my husband who is far away at sea. I trembled before his picture as I tremble before myself. A slavish creature, conscious of its chains – that is what he has made of me ..Shattered, I searched obstinately for one memory of our past as a young married couple that could delude me again, that could give me back the husband I believed I had. Nothing, I could find nothing – only my whipped child’s submissiveness, only his cold condescending smile.”

Colette and Willy

Claudine and Annie is very different to the first three books and while I don’t know why Colette turned to an alternative narrator and wrote about such a submissive character, it makes me ponder a corollary with her own life, as she was a free-spirited child, close to nature, who married young to an older man, who put her to work on these novels.

It is said she was no great writer initially, but that he turned her into one, locking her in her room until she turned out something, which he faithfully edited and published in his own name. After thirteen years of such an apprenticeship, she was undoubtedly disillusioned, divorced him and then fought to be recognised for the work she had produced. She was also determined not to be financially dependent on a man.

Claudine and Annie strikes me as a novel of resistance, but using a character that is almost unrecognisable, the alter-ego of Colette perhaps, that aspect of her that was suppressed and oppressed all those years, whose slow awakening allowed her to see that man before her for who he really was, her slave master.

I was asked which of the series had been my favourite and I find I am really unable to choose as they go together so well and should be read as one.

Clearly, as this review suggests, the first three have a particular harmony as they are all narrated by Claudine and more centred around her life and growth, this fourth book is less about Claudine and we see her only from afar, as a confidante of the troubled Annie, however it deserves its place as I suspect there is more to Annie than the character on the page, for me it was read with a question hanging over it in relation to the life Colette was living at the time.

I loved Claudine at School for her exuberant overconfidence and love of nature, Claudine in Paris for her naivety and prudence, realising there was much about life she had still to learn and Claudine Married for the melancholy of marriage, of the realisation of her false ideals and indulgence of strong emotional impulses.

And where to from here? Well, I will be continuing to read a few more women in translation during August, but will also be looking out for La Maison de Claudine (My Mother’s House), a memoir of Sido (her mother) and her own provincial childhood.

Further Reading

An Introduction to the Author, Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris

Book 3 – Claudine Married

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Claudine Married (Book 3) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

The impulsive Claudine, thinking a marriage of her own making and choice (not one chosen by her father or suggested by a man who had feelings for her that weren’t reciprocated) embarks on her marital journey which begins with fifteen months of a vagabond life, travelling to the annual opera Festival de Bayreuth, in Germany, to Switzerland and the south of France.

It might have been more enjoyable had she not had to endure the many introductions to numerous of her husband’s friends and their families, whom he made himself most agreeable to and put himself out for, something the young bride was unable to fully appreciate.

“As he explains, with impudent charm, it is not worthwhile doing violence to one’s nature to please one’s real friends, since one’s sure of them anyway…”

Claudine demands mercy and a fixed abode and thus this book of her marriage begins when they are reinstalled back in Paris, however Claudine still feels as though something is lacking. Before they returned she requested they visit Montigny and while unable to visit her childhood home (now rented), they visit the school and for a brief period she reconnects to something of her former self and notes one of the differences between herself and her husband in so doing.

“How willingly I look back over this recent past and dwell on it! But my husband lives in the future. This paradoxical man who is devoured by the terror of growing old, who studies himself minutely in looking-glasses and desperately notes every tiny wrinkle in the network at the corner of his eyes, is uneasy in the present and feverishly hurries Today on Tomorrow. I myself linger in the past, even if that past be only Yesterday, and I look back almost always with regret.”

This living in the past causes her even to forget that she now lives in this new apartment, coming out of her daydream, she readies herself to return home (to her father) only to realise she no longer lives there and ponders where her home really is.

“To go home! But where? Isn’t this my home, then? No, no, it isn’t, and that’s the whole source of my trouble. To go home? Where? Definitely not to Rue Jacob, where Papa has piled up mountains of papers on my bed. Not to Montigny, because neither the beloved house…not the School…”

Her husband decides to re-initiate his “at-home day”, a day when society friends can call to visit, Claudine isn’t too enthusiastic, but agrees as long as she doesn’t have to be the hostess. It is here she will meet Rézi, a woman she is both charmed by and fearful of, one whom she becomes attached to, visiting her daily, encouraged by her husband.

“Rézi… Her whole person gives off a scent of fern and iris, a respectable artless, rustic smell I find surprising and enchanting by contrast..”

Having achieved his objective in coming to Paris, to find his daughter a suitor, Claudine’s father announces he’s had enough of Paris and is returning to Montigny, and taking her cat Fanchette with him.

Claudine is drawn into the intoxicating intimacy of her friendship with Rézi, albeit somewhat bothered by the overly attentive encouragement of her husband.

“The violence of Rézi’s attraction, the vanity of my resistance, the sense that I am behaving ridiculously, all urge me to get it over and done with; to intoxicate myself with her till I have exhausted her charm. But, I resist! And I despise myself for my own stubborn obstinacy.”

Their relationship plays itself out, up to the denouement, when Claudine seeking refuge decides to return to Montigny, to the safety of her childhood home, the woods, her animals whose loyalty she is assured of, and the affection of the maid Mélie and her humble, absent-minded father.

She writes a letter to her husband, the last pages arrive and we are on to the next book, in English entitled Claudine and Annie, in French Claudine s’en va, meaning Claudine Leaves!

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris

Book 4 – Claudine and Annie (to come)…

Claudine in Paris (Book 2) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

After years of freedom in her beloved countryside of Montigny, having been Queen of her domain and revered in school, Claudine weakens on arrival in Paris, forcibly confined to the rooms within their new home in illness. She wonders what has happened to her, hardly recognising herself.

Her father assumes his previous habits, embarking on his latest project, confined to his library most days, employing an assistant to help him, a young man who appears to have a crush on Claudine.

Seeking company outside the home, Claudine asks after her father’s sister.

“Why haven’t we seen my aunt yet? Haven’t you written to her? Haven’t you been to see her?”

Papa, with the condescension one displays to mad people, asked me gently, with a clear eye and a soothing voice:

“Which aunt, darling?”

Accustomed to his absent-mindedness, I made him grasp that I was actually talking about his sister.

Thereupon he exclaimed, full of admiration:

“You think of everything! Ten thousand herds of swine! Dear old girl, how pleased she’ll be to know we are in Paris.” He added, his face clouding: “She’ll hook on to me like a damn’ leech.”

She is delighted to finally meet her Aunt and to discover Marcel, the young man Claudine’s age who she is guardian to, in fact Marcel is Claudine’s nephew, sent to live with his grandmother after the premature death of his mother.

If Claudine at School represents the unfettered, exuberant joys of teenage freedom, of the innocent and immature love between friends and the cruel indulgences of playful spite, Claudine in Paris is the slap in the face of regarding an approaching adult, urban world, one where the streets are inhabited by hidden dangers, the skies are more gloomy, people are not what they seem, even old friends from school become unrecognisable when the city and her frustrated inhabitants get their clutch onto the innocent.

Claudine wants to embrace it all with the same fervour she did her old school, but discovers her own prudence, when confronted with the reality of entering adulthood.

“There I was, making myself out completely sophisticated and disillusioned and shouting from the rooftops ‘Ha, ha! you can’t teach me anything. Ha, ha! I read everything! And I understand everything even though I am only seventeen.’ Precisely. And when it comes to a gentleman pinching my behind in the street or a little friend living what I’m in the habit of reading about, I’m knocked sideways. I lay about me with my umbrella or else I flee from vice with a noble gesture. In your heart of hearts, Claudine, you’re nothing but a common everyday decent girl. How Marcel would despise me if he knew that!”

Marcel’s father, whom she calls Uncle Renaud, introduces her to the theatre, she gets outfitted with a more appropriate wardrobe for a social life in Paris, she begins to delight in her new surroundings, although a melancholy often arises when she thinks of her life in the countryside, an affliction she thinks might be resolved by finding the right relationship.

“The lilies-of-the-valley on the chimney-piece intoxicated me and gave me a migraine. What was the matter with me? My unhappiness over Luce, yes, but something else too – my heart was aching with homesickness. I felt as ridiculous as that sentimental engraving hanging on the wall of Mademoiselle’s drawing-room Mignon regretting her fatherland. And I thought I was cured of so many things and had lost so many of my illusions! Alas, my mind kept going back to Montigny.”

She even misses her homework and having to explain those mindless subjects she used to abhor, such as ‘Idleness is the mother of all vices,’ one she has had the misfortune to come to understand better .

A marriage proposal awakens her from her misery, an idea forms in her mind and before we know it, the page has turned and we are into Claudine Married!

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 3 – Claudine Married (to come)

The Complete Claudine, by Colette – An Introduction by Judith Thurman tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

Every summer I choose to read one chunkster, a big fat book, and this year knowing August would be the month that many others are reading books by women in translation, I decided to combine the two things and so chose to read a book translated from French to English, a classic, by the renowned author and personality Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, referred to by her surname and pen name Colette.

The book I chose The Complete Claudine, is in fact four books combined in one volume, however I’ve written them up separately, including this first post, which is an introduction to the extraordinary personality behind the writer.

Introducing Colette

The book begins with an intriguing introduction by Judith Thurman, which I found helpful as I really knew little about Colette which she used as her writing pen-name.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette by Leopold Reutlinger

She was a colourful, eccentric, driven character, a woman way ahead of her time, who wanted it all and seems to have pretty much lived her life, pursuing that goal, ignoring societal stereotypes and rejecting all labels about who, what and where a woman’s place should be,  attracting as many admiring fans as scathing critics. She detested labels, and while her attitude may be thought of as feminist, she was far from abiding by political correctness or aligning herself with any kind of women’s group.

“Me, a feminist?” she scoffed in a 1910 interview. “I’ll tell you what the suffragettes deserve: the whip and the harem.” She saw no contradiction between supporting conservative positions and living her life as an “erotic militant” in revolt against them. Better worlds and just rewards were of no more consequence to her than the prospect of an afterlife. – Judith Thurman, Introduction

She was born in the Burgundy village of Saint-Saveur-en- Puisaye on January 28, 1873, a countryside upbringing that informs the autobiographical Claudine at School; the first volume in this book. Her own school years were likely more conservative that those expressed in her novel, which was influenced by her husband Willy, the pen name she would use when these books were first published, as it was he who introduced her to avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles while engaging in sexual affairs and encouraging her to do the same. It was he who suggested the idea of  “the secondary myth of Sappho…the girls’ school or convent ruled by a seductive female teacher” (Ladimer, p. 53)

Her mother, “Mme Colette – the splendid earth mother known to Colette’s readers as Sido” came from a family of mixed African and Creole descent from the colonies (Martinique) and:

had boundless ambitions for her youngest daughter and “second self,” Gabrielle, and these never included domestic – or sentimental – drudgery. Sido called marriage, only half-ironically, a “heinous crime,” and would rejoice in Colette’s liaison from 1905 to 1911 with a cultivated and melancholy lesbian transvestite, the Marquise de Morny, largely because “Missy’s” generosity and solicitude were so wholesome for Colette’s fiction. Nor was Sido’s “precious jewel,” childless until forty, ever encouraged by her mother to procreate.

She published nearly 80 volumes of fiction, memoir, drama, essays, criticism, and reportage, Gigi the best known to readers in the English language, though unfortunately so according to Judith Thurman as its promise of happiness so misrepresents Colette’s view of love.

The character Claudine was Colette’s invention of the century’s first teenage girl, one who was rebellious, secretive, erotically restless and disturbed, free-spirited and determined to carve her own path. Her rebellion was against convention not family, she had free rein at home, her single parent father poring over his slug manuscript left her to her own devices, though somewhat constrained by the maid who took care of her basic needs.

 

“It is not a bad thing that children

should occasionally, and politely,

put parents in their place.” Colette

Colette married at twenty(1893) and moved to Paris, separating from Willy in 1906 though with no access to royalties for her books as she had penned them in his name, leading her to a stage career in the music halls of Paris, her experience of that way of life informing her novel The Vagabond (1910).

“a novel that anticipates by ninety years, the contemporary fashion for wry, first-person narratives by single, thirty something career women. Its heroine examines her addictions to men with amused detachment, and flirts, alternately, with abstinence and temptation. Is there love without complete submission and loss of identity? Is freedom really worth the loneliness that pays for it? These are Colette’s abiding questions.”

Her move to Paris heralded the beginning of a public personality, as she would go on to become one of the most notorious and exuberant personalities of fin-de-siècle Paris. Her subsequent divorce and the years working on the stage exposed her to a poverty consciousness she’d not until then experienced and induced in her a steely determination to be independent and earn her own living at all times. After his death, she sued to have his name removed from her earlier books.

“The frugality of Virginia Woolf’s five hundred a year and a room of one’s own had as much allure for her as the ideals of Woolf’s feminism, which is to say, none at all. Colette’s models were never the gentlewomen of letters living on their allowances but the courtesans and artistes she had frequented in her youth, whose notion of a bottom line was fifty thousand a year and a villa of one’s own – with a big garden, a great chef, and a pretty boy.”

She would have a child (a daughter) at forty, though her maternal instinct never developed sufficiently for her to spend much time in the role of mother, allowing her to be raised by a nanny, though she marry the baby’s father Baron Henry de Jouvenel, an influential, flamboyant political journalist in Paris.

Below is a summary of Lessons We Can Learn From Colette, written by Holly Isard on the anniversary of her death, 3 August, do click on the link to read the lessons, they provide an interesting insight into the individualist character Colette was and lived according to. Each lesson has a wonderful anecdote connected to it.

Famous for her free spirit as much her style of writing, Colette was a chronicler of female existence, a precursory feminist who pushed against the bounds of sexuality for women in Paris. To the abhorrence of Parisian society, Colette experimented with androgyny on and off stage. She also frequented the spaces where marginal sexualities were beginning to find some visibility, in the cabarets and pantomimes. Even 142 years after her birth, Colette remains an icon and an indisputably formidable woman. Here, we consider five key lessons we can learn from the great lady herself.

1. Continue on in the face of controversy 

2. Stick with your gut instinct

3. Don’t underestimate a woman’s influence 

4. “Perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.”

 Next Up:
Book 3: Claudine Married
Book 4:Claudine and Annie

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Totally brilliant and original, what a voice, a narrative and an insight into a woman’s desire for fulfilment.

yin_yang_by_fallen_eyeIf you have read or were considering reading Marlon James Booker winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, then this is the Yin to his Yang, this is the feminine yearn to his masculine ambition.

Immersed in the dynamic culture of the American South, its language, traditions and folklore and equally fascinated by it, Zora Neale Hurston had instant access to a rich depth of stories, songs, incidents, idiomatic phrases and metaphors and an adept ear for the rhythm of speech patterns. With her literary intelligence and skill, she brings it together with remarkable power and beauty to the written page.

Their Eyes were Watching God is an American classic, the esteemed author Toni Morrison called her “One of the greatest writers of our time”, though she may be lesser known beyond those shores. There has been much written about her work and of this particular novel, criticized by feminists at the time of publication, yet come to be more appreciated and understood with time.

Alice Walker’s essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” revived interest in the author and since then there have been numerous new editions published. It was originally published in 1937.

Zora Neale Hurston tells the story of Janie, a girl raised by her Nanny, who was an ex-slave and therefore wanting to protect her daughter and grand-daughter from the things she feared, which amounted to marriage to a man with land or money or to live under the wings of a good, white family.

zoraUnable to protect her daughter, who was raped by her schoolteacher, her focus moves to Janie, whom the daughter leaves her with. As soon as adolescence beckons she arranges for her to marry an older farmer with land. Janie dreams of love and fulfilment and when mentions not finding it in this marriage is reprimanded by her grandmother for her romantic notions.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.Janie had had no chance to know things, so she had to ask. Did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated? Did marriage compel love like the sun the day?”

She moves on and marries Joe Sparks who takes her to a new town in Florida, a town built by black people for black people. It isn’t as Joe expects, so he sets about continuing its creation, getting himself elected as mayor and becoming a wealthy man. Janie becomes his showpiece, working in the shop, however he curtails her interactions with the community, thwarting her ability to be herself, even making her cover her hair due to his jealousy.

“She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market place to sell.  Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sang all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed.  So they beat him down to nothing but sparks, but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.”

Finally, her quest will become fulfilled, though not without its share of life’s ordinary and extraordinary sufferings, when she meets Tea Cake and they manage to ride life’s roller coaster of events and emotions, working together to deal with the demons and living their dream.

“Dis is uh love game.  Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine.”

The excellent afterword of the Virago edition I read, says the following to explain one of the reasons this novel has attributed such notoriety today and why it is that she achieved something so rare.

Black women had been portrayed as characters in numerous novels by blacks and non-blacks. But these portraits were limited by the stereotypical images of, on the one hand, the ham-fisted matriarch, strong and loyal in the defense of the white family she serves (but unable to control or protect her own family without the guidance of some white person), and, on the other, the amoral, instinctual slut. Between these two stereotypes stood the tragic mulatto: too refined and sensitive to live under the repressive conditions endured by ordinary blacks and too coloured to enter the white world.

Even the few idealised portraits of black women evoked these negative stereotypes. The idealisations were morally uplifting and politically laudable, but their literary importance rests upon just that: the correctness of their moral and political stance. Their value lies in their illuminations of the society’s workings and their insights into the ways oppression is institutionalised. They provide, however, few insights into character or consciousness. And when we go (to use Alice Walker’s lovely phrase) in search of our mother’s gardens, it’s not really to learn who trampled on them or how or even why – we usually know that already. Rather, it’s to learn what our mothers planted there, what they thought as they sowed, and how they survived the blighting of so many fruits. Zora Hurston’s life and work present us with insights into just these concerns.” Sherley Anne Williams

Zora Neale Hurston’s depiction of Janie’s life provides a wonderful insight into the character and consciousness of a woman of her era, drawing from her own experience, though the character of Janie has a different personality to Hurston, providing a look not so much into the experiences, but of the yearnings and emotional life of women, their quest for fulfilment and self-discovery and though it’s not without obstacles, allows a little light to shine on those moments where her life does reach that bitter-sweet destination, leaving wisdom in its wake.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (1892-1960) was born in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in America. Her life there, nine years of wanderings is described in her book Dust Tracks on the Road. She studied at Howard University and began to write, attracting the attention of the Harlem Renaissance with her essays and short fiction and won a scholarship to Barnard College where she studied Cultural Anthropology, subsequently spending four years researching folklore on the South and publishing another five books including this novel and a collection of tales, songs, games and voodoo practices from the time.

Click Here to Buy a Copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Top Reads 2015

If you’ve noticed a lack of reviews recently, please know it’s not from a lack of interest, time or reading, just a temporary technical problem, not yet resolved but should be by mid January.

So, 2015 was a bumper reading year, I surpassed my book a week ambition and actually read 65 books from 26 different countries, a third of what I read was translated from another language, something I seek out in my interest to experience literature and storytelling from within other cultures and not only by those who have access to the English language.

I will create a separate post to talk more about my impressions and attractions of reading outside the main literary cultures and the cultures and landscapes that keep drawing me back for more.

As with previous years, I’ll share my one Outstanding Read and the Top 5 Fiction and Non-Fiction reads, with a few special mentions.

Outstanding Read of 2015

Autobiography MotherThe Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid My first read of the long-established author Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua) and it moved me like no other book had since last years outstanding read, Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen.

This is a novel about a young woman growing up without a mother, abandoned for a time by her father and looking back at her life and the thoughts, reactions she had back then, using all the senses.

It is a kind of awakening, a visceral account that is insightful and squeamish both. It was for me too, the beginning of a season of Caribbean reads that were one of the major reading highlights of the year, soon after this I read three books by Maryse Condè (Guadeloupe), Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuba, Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory (Haiti) all of which were 5 star reads.

Top Fiction

Click on the title below to read the review.

1.  The Wall,  Marlen Haushofer a riveting story of one womans survival in the aftermath of a catastrophic event, with only a few animals for companions. A lost classic that was revived years after the death of the writer and one that had me spellbound until the end.

2. The Yellow Rain, Julio Llamazares set in an almost abandoned village in the Spanish Pyrenees, this is a haunting, elegiac account of one man who refused to leave and was witness to the degradation of all that man had contributed as nature reclaimed what was left. Captivating in the way it is written, you will want to slow read it, brief yet unforgettable.

3. Dreaming in Cuban, Cristina Garcia spanning three generations of women from Cuba, told from their differing perspectives, particularly the grandmother who is rooted in her country and culture, it explores separation, identity, the strong bonds of family and the weight of expectation. How these women survive their circumstances. Just brilliant and part of a great collection of literature from the region.

4. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley well it started with listening to the BBC audio broadcasts for learners of English, followed by watching a relayed broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch in the London National Theatre adaptation, which was brilliant, to finally reading the work itself. I was a little hesitant, old classics aren’t really my thing, but I loved reading Frankenstein and couldn’t help but admire the tremendous achievement of Mary Shelley in creating it. Made all the more fabulous by having seen how it continues to inspire creative direction in the 21st century.

5. The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, Tracy Farr I didn’t read a lot of newly published works in 2015, but this one was a standout read for me, I was quickly drawn into the world of Lena Gaunt, an Australian theremin player who was born in Asia and had a few life changing experiences from her encounters there, who lived without much parental guidance or supervision, and developed her musical talents amid an eclectic group of artistic friends, had one true love and faced certain tragedy, all of which is brought to life after a recital she gave in her eighties attracted the attentions of a filmmaker. All the more interesting, for it being inspired by a true legend.

Top Non-Fiction

1. Unbowed: Autobiography of Wangari Maathai the truly inspiring story of Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, the work she did, the challenges overcome that gave her a top education and the will to make a real difference, particularly for the lives of women in her country. She empowered others and created enduring projects and movements for all.

2. Under the Sea-Wind, Rachel Carson first in a nature inspired trilogy about the sea and her inhabitants, brought to life in a creative narrative, as seen from the perspective of three sea creatures, part one, the edge of the sea shows the habitat from the point of view of a female sanderling bird, she names Silverbar, part two, the Gulls way, is dedicated to the open sea and navigated by Scomber, the mackerel, and finally part three, river and sea, we follow Anguilla the eel as he travels from his coastal river pool downstream towards the sea and that deep instinctual pull towards the abyss.

3. Tales of the Heart: Stories from my Childhood, Maryse Condé essays, vignettes of childhood, recommended as the place to start in reading the work of this talented and enthralling writer from Guadeloupe. Loved it and was quick to follow-up with Victoire, My Mothers Mother, a book she says is true, though sold as a novel by her publishers due to the tendency of her research subjects to rely on oral stories to pass on their history. Brilliantly told, as she delves into the unknown life of her grandmother to better know and her own mother who died when she was 14.

4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (review to come) the background story to the global presence and utilisation of the immortal HeLa human tissue cells, that were discovered to be unique in that they never died, continued to replicate and could be used to do all manner of tests for disease and drugs and how cells respond, something of a revolution for medical science.

HeLa were the initials of the person from whom the samples were taken, as was the procedure at the time. But who was HeLa and what did she or her family have to say about these extraordinary developments thanks to the cells of one woman? Rebecca Skloot spent 10 years researching the life of Henrietta Lacks and the subject of the HeLa cells to bring this extraordinary narrative.

5. Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed these are letters from the columnist Sugar, who it turned out was Cheryl Strayed, author of the book Wild about her solo journey to trek the Pacific West trail in her twenties.

These letters are written when she is in her forties and though still young, has lived multiple lives and had more than her share of extreme and dysfunctional experiences, from which to draw her own brand of wisdom. It’s a pick up at will kind of book, but her confrontational yet compassionate style is refreshing and thought-provoking, her ability to be very clear on her opinion and advice, without being judgmental.

Special Mentions

Outstanding Debut – Our Endless Numbered Days Claire Fuller

Excellent Classic – The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim

Most Uplifting Read – Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook and The President’s Hat

Most Disturbing Read – Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk

Most Disappointing Read – The Waves , Virginia Woolf

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

CIMG7226As soon as I learned that Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April was to be reissued as a Penguin classic, I jumped at the chance to read it. Elizabeth and her German Garden was such an engaging and entertaining read and I recall in the comments of that review so many mentions of The Enchanted April as a must read.

Elizabeth wrote The Enchanted April in a castello (an eleventh-century fortress with Roman foundations overlooking the Ligurian Sea) in Portofino, Italy, in April 1921. She had rented the place to get away from her own (sixteen bedroom) chalet in Switzerland… an extract from the Introduction by Brenda Bowen

Brenda Bowen has written a work of fan fiction, published in June 2015, one that mirrors von Arnim’s work, set in contemporary Brooklyn and Maine featuring four ladies who will rent a cottage (not castle) on Little Lost Island, Maine.

Enchanted August

One to Watch Out For, Fan Fiction

Enchanting indeed, not just the month of April, but all that made this original classic so; the villa San Salvatore (inspired by the Castello Brown pictured below) on the cliffs of Portofino overlooking the sea, the blooming buds and flowers of Spring, four weeks stretched out in front of four unaccompanied women with no social obligations, no cooking, cleaning, nothing to do but enjoy the gardens, the villa, the seascape and one minor challenge, to tolerate each others company.

They are four women who remind me of the semi-autobiographical and coolly calculating character of Elizabeth, in von Arnim’s Elizabeth and her German Garden, for though the four women in this novel sought company for this séjour on the Ligurian coast of Italy, it was purely for financial reasons, most certainly not for companionship, the first hint of von Arnim’s well-known and often quoted attitude towards visitors.

Being with strangers, they each hoped to leave that part of themselves that must always meet the expectations of others behind. Mrs Wilkins  from Hampstead was the first to see the advertisement in The Times while visiting her London club.

To Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000,

The Times.

Mrs Wilkins was certain another woman her age was reading the same ad and having a similar response to it, so true to her nature (though not typical of society’s expectation of a response) she seized the initiative suggesting they rented the place together.

Her initial reluctance overcome, once the two women realised it was possible, they needed only a solution to the expense which Mrs Wilkins solved by suggesting they place another ad to attract another two like-minded female souls, thus we are introduced to the beautiful, ever charming even when she is trying not to be, Lady Caroline Dester and the somewhat disagreeable and much older Mrs Fisher.

Once ensconced in their lodgings, the four women interact and are given a well-portrayed and at times humorous glimpse into their individual characters, made all the more interesting by the fact that these women were most unlikely to have ever encountered each other within their existing social circles.

Enchanted April

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are pleased to have escaped their husbands, though they each harbour an underlying sadness for how things were when they were newly married. They are not aged, in their thirties, they have more the air of self-accepting middle age. However, they hadn’t reckoned on the effect of a stay at San Salvatore.

Lady Caroline just wants to be left alone, unmarried and disinclined, she detests the attention her beauty and natural charm attract. The formidable Mrs Fisher appears malcontent for no more reason than that she’s been on Earth at least twice as long as the younger women, having lost what youthful exuberance she may ever have had long ago.

‘Mrs Fisher doesn’t seem happy – not visibly anyhow,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot, smiling.

‘She’ll begin soon, you’ll see.’

Mrs Arbuthnot said she didn’t believe that after a certain age people began anything.

Mrs Wilkins said she was sure no one, however old and tough could resist the effects of perfect beauty. Before many days, perhaps only hours, they would see Mrs Fisher bursting out into every kind of exuberance. ‘I’m quite sure, said Mrs Wilkins, ‘that we’ve got to heaven, and once Mrs Fisher realises that’s where she is, she’s bound to be different. You’ll see. She’ll leave off being ossified, and go all soft and able to stretch, and we shall get quite – why, I shouldn’t be surprised if we get quite fond of her.’

Things are about to change, as the castle San Salvatore, though solid and immovable, works its way into their psyches and each will fall under the spell of the charming fortress and its healing environment over the course of their four-week stay.

I thought The Enchanted April a wonderful, evocative read and witty insight into its very English characters, enjoyable for its sense of place and the lush season it evokes, von Arnim’s natural, subtle humour that she never ceases to inject into her narratives, in this novel there is no trace of the slight cynicism of her earlier work; she has allowed her four women to indulge this fantasy through to its natural conclusion.

And oh how fulfilling that can be for the reader, I know this little stretch of Italy and it invoked pleasant memories and incited future dreams of a possible return – with three women ‘bien sûr’!

Countess Elizabeth von Arnim

Born Mary (May) Annette Beauchamp in 1866, Elizabeth von Arnim was Australian by birth, English by upbringing, German and English through marriage, Swiss and French by choice and finally American by emigration. She published 21 books in her lifetime,  books where the central female character(s) were often witty and unreserved, possessing an unusual outlook on life. A number of them, including The Enchanted April were made into films.

An appearance of the novel Elizabeth and her German Garden in a recent episode of Downton Abbey, sparked renewed interest in the works of the author. That novel was so popular when first published, it was reprinted 21 times within a year of publication.

She was the cousin and contemporary of the New Zealand/English writer Katherine Mansfield. She died in Charleston, South Carolina in 1941.

KM logoElizabeth von Arnim Conference – In an extraordinary coincidence that I just discovered, the Katherine Mansfield Society is to hold an Elizabeth von Arnim Conference, at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge on Sept 13th 2015!

My review of Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August.

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