The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

Tracy Farr’s delightful, fascinating debut novel is the fictional memoir of Dame Lena Gaunt: musician, octogenarian, puffer of exotic substances. It was one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015.

Lena went from a background of playing traditional instruments to becoming a modern musician, being the first theremin player of the twentieth century, an intriguing instrument played through movement but without the musicians hands actually touching the instrument.

Lena Gaunt

From its opening pages where we experience Lena’s daily routine, her strong pull to the sea, The memory of music in her bones, it becomes a book that grows on you until it becomes unputdownable.

“I move my arms in wide arcs in front of me, pushing water out to the sides and back again. I can feel the stretch in my shoulders, the tendons tense and twist. Bubbles form up my arms and, trapped in the tiny pale hairs, tickling like the bead in champagne. Moving my fingers in the water effects tiny changes in the waves that effect bigger movements. Action at a distance; just like playing the theremin.”

Lena Gaunt was an only child, born in Singapore, spending a solitary childhood in the tropics before being sent “back Home” her parents called it, alone to Australia where her Uncle deposited her at a private boarding school, at four-years of age. She became closer to her bachelor Uncle Valentine than her parents, who were distant, not just physically, but emotionally and who died before any change in their relationship might manifest.

Lena played the piano, but her first true love was the cello, one of her few regrets, that in taking up the theremin, the instrument she would become most well-known for, she stopped playing the cello.

After an unsuccessful visit to her father in Malacca (Malaysia) at 18, one where he had hoped to groom her into the demure, music playing, after dinner entertainment for his friends, a night walk into the seedier parts of the town, where she stumbles across her Uncle and her father’s business partner in an opium den, has her sent back to Australia, willingly and to the beginning of a life she will create anew.

“It had taken little for me to disappoint my father, but in truth, he too had disappointed me. Father, home, family; empty words, without meaning for me.”

She is introduced to and practices cello with Madame Vita Petrova, the eccentric, vodka and coffee drinking Russian with a unique ear and skill for the cello, not found in the more conservative establishments. It is her first encounter with the artistic and musical misfits, a bohemian community with whom she is more comfortable and will become part of.

It is through Madame Petrova she hears of the Professor, the man who introduces her to the instrument, the Music’s Most Modern Instrument, she will play for the world, the theremin.

“played by the waving of hands, like conducting an orchestra. It is played without the player touching it, not with a bow, nor by blowing. It is neither wind nor string, brass nor percussion.”

The Bridge, Dorrit Black (1930)

The Bridge, Dorrit Black (1930)

In Sydney, she meets Beatrix Carmichael, a painter/artist twice her age who becomes her constant companion, a part of who she is, one who really sees her. As Beatrix paints the two sides of the Sydney Harbour Bridge coming together on her canvases, from the verandah of their home, it feels so real, and yet there is a sense of the end of an era, as the subject becomes less intriguing on completion.

“We celebrated it, this joining of the city, the coming together, and yet Trix mourned it too. Since her return from Europe, since her arrival in Sydney, she’d been painting the growing bridge in parts, separate; in fragmented shapes formed of light and colour and sun and music.”

The novel follows Lena’s long, engaging life, and each turn of events that takes her away from the familiar until finally she returns to the place that most feels like home, where she plays one last performance and will meet the young filmmaker Mo, who provokes her into completing the life story she began to record many years before.

As the filmmaker questions Lena Gaunt about her life before the performance she had just given (in her eighties), the narrative flashes back to her past, her isolated childhood, boarding school, separation from family, visits by Uncle Valentine, the piano, the cello, musical influences, her life with Beatrix, making her remember it all, even the painful memories she had hoped never to re-encounter.

It is a fascinating story, a mix of fact and fiction, one that Tracy Farr succeeds in bringing alive through the places Lena visits and lives in, the people we encounter, the music that is made, the images that are painted and the heartbreaking losses she must sustain.

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The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, tr. Andrew Bromfield

Dead Lake 2An astonishing tale tinged with sadness, as recounted by the protagonist Yerzhan to a stranger on a train journey across the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan, that in part continues to be imagined by the listener as from time to time, the young narrator sleeps.

The story begins when the boy enters the carriage playing Brahms on his violin in a manner that causes everyone to stop and look at him, not believing it possible that a boy who looks about ten to twelve-years-old could play to such perfection and with such awe-inspiring panache.

“Then, just as he had the entire carriage gaping after him open-mouthed, he broke off in mid-note. He slung the violin back over his shoulder like a rifle.

‘Wholesome local beverage – entirely organic!’ he exclaimed in a thick, adult voice. He swung a canvas sack down off his other shoulder and pulled out an immense plastic bottle of a yoghurt drink, either ayran or kumis. I approached him, without even knowing why.”

train trackYerzhan grows up at a remote railway siding in a part of the country where atomic weapons are tested. Two families live near each other, their lives more intertwined than appears on the surface.

Yerzhan and the neighbour’s daughter Aisulu travel many miles by donkey to go to school and many more miles to see the strange but talented bachelor, Petko, a Bulgarian violin teacher.

Every so often the ground shakes, another sun rises and everything is still. Then there is the Zone, that area where it is so silent, his ears ring.

“And the thing that loomed over him like a visceral fear could happen in the middle of the sweltering summer, when sheep suddenly started bleating as if they were under the knife and went dashing in all directions, cows dug their horns into the ground and the donkey squealed and rolled around in the dust…

And a slight rumble would run through the ground, Yerzhan’s legs would start trembling, and then his whole body, and the fear would rise up from his shaking knees to his stomach and freeze there in a heavy ache, until the sky cracked over his head and shattered into pieces, crushing him completely, reducing him to dust, to sand, to scraps of grass and wool. And the black whirlwind hurtled past above him with a wild howl.”

A young boy playing the dombra

A boy plays the dombra

His friend Aisulu’s Granny tells him a story of his conception and birth, intertwined with local legend; not knowing who his father is, he often replays the story in his mind, trying to understand it, and who he is.

“Granny Ulbarsyn’s story  wasn’t the only thing that had sunk deep into Yerzhan’s heart.  Grandad’s dombra playing stayed with him too. When no one was looking the boy took the instrument down from its nail high up on the wall. And while his grandfather tapped with the hammer on railway carriages, Yerzhan strummed the dombra secretly, imitating the old man’s knitted brows and hoarse voice. It didn’t take long before he picked out a few familiar melodies and then, with the keen eye he used to keep watch on Uncle Kapek’s behaviour, he followed and memorised  his granddad’s finger movements.”

Dead LakeYerzhan learns the dombra and violin and is bright, but the real light in his life is Aisulu, a light that gradually fades upon his reaching the age of 12, when he walks into the forbidden, radioactive Dead Lake to impress her and from that day on stops growing, destined to watch her pass him by.

“Other people noticed it too and wanted to help. Granny Ulbarsyn fed him with the livers of new born spring lambs, Grandad Daulet ordered carrots from the city through his  friend Tolegen,  and Uncle Shaken brought disgusting fish oil back from his shift. But that only produced a foul-smelling burp! Yerzhan ate it all. But he had stopped growing.”

Another of Peirene Press’s excellent novella’s, this really is an afternoon read, but so rich in the telling, it is a pleasure to go back and reread passages with the familiarity of having read the story. It is a tale tinged with  inevitable sadness as people live with the invisible terrors that are an environmental legacy of the Cold War.

If you want to read more contemporary European literature outside the English language, you can do no better than take out a fabulous subscription with Peirene Press. Three novellas a year and the kind you’ll rarely find in most bookshops.

Note: The author Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan and moved to Uzbekistan as a young man. He writes in both Russian and Uzbek and his novels have been translated into many European languages. Sadly his work is banned in Uzbekistan today and he has had to flee the country due to his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Nora WebsterSomething about the promise of Colm Tóibín’s new novel Nora Webster pulled me in right from the beginning, the cover with its familiar Irish landscape of boats moored against a grey sky, the less conspicuous protagonist, a 40-year-old housewife who doesn’t become the mother of a prophet, an oversensitive woman who rarely gives voice to the many thoughts that race through her mind as she tries to cope with the aftermath of her husband’s untimely death and the shift in relations with her four children.

We know little of her life with her husband Maurice, she doesn’t wallow in pity, though we know she neglected all else, including visiting her sons who were living with her Aunt, one of whom develops a stutter as a result, during those last months when he was dying.

“In these months, she realised, something had changed in the clear, easy connection between her and them, perhaps, for them, between each other. She felt that she would never be sure about them again.”

Nora Webster is a complex character whom few on the outside really understand, including her siblings, who despite their sister’s loss, well, according to Nora – seem to want to avoid her. Even when invited, she senses they wish her gone so they can talk about her. She behaves in a way to provoke them, ensuring they will have something to talk about, deliberately avoiding helping out, resolving not to do any washing up or to help in the kitchen.

“She wondered if she would ever be able to have a normal conversation and what topics she might be able to discuss with ease and interest.”

Set in a small town outside Dublin, in 1960’s Ireland, the novel charts a short period of time after her husband’s death in which Nora makes some important decisions such as selling the beach house and going back to work. She gets her hair dyed and joins the Gramophone Society. She takes singing lessons and following the advice of her Aunt puts her son into boarding school. She begins to create a life that would have been unimaginable in the past and becomes a woman she is comfortable with but surprised by, almost in spite of herself.

Colm Tóibín uses a particular narrative device that has a significant effect on how we see things. By writing in the third person limited perspective, we only ever see things from Nora’s point of view, there is little opportunity to see events in any other way, with the exception of the occasional insightful dialogue. This is the only time we hear what people have to say about Nora.

POVThe narrative perspective creates a narrow, introspective insight into her thinking, but also raises doubts as to whether what she thinks actually reflects reality, as she so rarely expresses her questioning thoughts and prefers to let them lie unstated, preferring to deal with the consequence of her silence. It made me want to shout  “Speak your mind Nora!”

She visits her sister who doesn’t offer them food after a long journey, Nora knows the boys are hungry and wonders if her sister believes they had already eaten, but says nothing.

“What was strange, she noticed, was that Catherine did not give her any opportunity to mention food; instead she spoke to her as though she were not really there. Once she noticed this, she found that she could notice nothing else….she had created an atmosphere in which Nora could have nothing to say.”

Nora has such powerful equanimity, that she rarely speaks, it is as if she lives continuously outside herself, observing herself and others in the situation and wondering many things that she will never utter. It is part of her character, accentuated by grief. To the point that when she does act and we see what she is capable of, it is a shock, it seems out of character. She is quite a force after all.

“She had trained herself not to ask any of the children too many questions. If she came home with a parcel of any kind when she was growing up, her mother would need to know what was in the parcel, or if a letter came for her, her mother would need to know who it was from and what news it contained. Nora had found this constantly irritating, and tried with her own children not to intrude.”

Nora Webster is a perplexing character and Colm Tóibín a masterful creator of character, deliberately using a narrative device that prevents the reader from feeling comfortable with her observation of reality, while forcing us to accept it. We too are trapped inside Nora’s mind, just as she is trapped inside her grief. We feel the need to escape, to shout, to ask someone what is really happening here.

“They did not have her way of watching every scene, every moment, for signs of what was missing or what might have been.”

I found the novel a compelling, albeit at times annoying read. I turned the pages hungry for more and found myself resenting the authorial control over the narrative perspective. I wanted to read a companion novel, the one written from the point of view of her son Donal or her daughter Fiona, I didn’t trust Nora Webster’s interpretation of people’s motives and although she knew people gossiped behind her back, I really wanted to know what it was they were saying and not just her wild, over analytic guess at what was passing through the minds of members of her family and community.

042512_1611_IntheSpring1.jpgNora’s grief is unique in that she very rarely dwells on the past and we aren’t sure whether the way she is now, is how she always was or how much of it is the result of her grieving.

One of the best novels I have read portraying a widow’s grief was Susan Hill’s astonishing, In the Springtime of the Year, which I highly recommend, her protagonist is equally displaced by grief and experiencing an existential crisis provoked by the untimely death of her young husband.

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

They’re Reading Thousands of Great Books Here, Cité du Livre – A Local French Cultural Centre and Library

Yesterday via a link on twitter, I read a provocative article in BBC News Magazine by Hugh Schofield entitled Why don’t French books sell abroad? It was an interesting, if superficial article, that made a few observations without going into any depth to understand the contemporary literary scene in France. It asked questions, reminded us of some old provocative stereotypes and did little to enlighten us on the subject of what excites French readers and why the English-speaking world aren’t more aware of their contemporary literary gems.

Kate from BooksKateRates, reads and blog about French literature and wrote an interesting blog post in response to the article and I have been scribbling notes since reading the original article. I plan to share them here, as it is a fascinating subject if one takes the time to research and understand it.

But firstly, I wanted to show you the library, as it offers a glimpse into  how the French absorb literature and culture and it’s one our favourite local hangouts.

Situated in what was a 14,500 sqm match factory, the library, La Bibliothèque Mèjanes, is part of the Cité du livre, a centre for the arts and culture which includes an auditorium for lectures and readings, rooms for more formal lectures, a small cinema showing themed films for 3 week periods (currently Humphrey Bogart films), a music and film lending room, adult and children’s libraries, a press room, an exhibition space (currently celebrating the centenary of Albert Camus), a café and plenty of space for research and study.

Library Press Room

Library Press Room

As we walk in through the enormous sculptures of the covers of Camus’s  L’etranger on one side and Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince and Molière on the other, we arrive in a long corridor and the reception area for borrowing and returning books.

Turn left and we head towards the reading library where outside the door is a display of books for adolescents. A quick glance at these books shows us that half of them are translated fiction, from South African, German and Hispanic authors.

AsterixInside, we walk past displays of translated literature originating from South Africa, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, then the stacks of Bande Dessinée, the very popular hardcover graphic novels, which even today remain at the top of the French bestsellers list, right now its Asterix chez les Pictes, visiting the people of ancient Scotland!

And here are the novels, in French called romans. Rows and rows of books and you might notice something they all have in common, well, in fact, something they all lack. Colour.

Compare it to the shelf opposite which contains the English language novels. It certainly removes that whole likelihood of an impulse buy based on an intriguing cover.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Most French literary novels are published without fancy colourful covers and while in the bookshop you might find first editions with promotional covers, there are many more with pale or cream covers without images and a black or red text title.

However, after looking around a little more, I discover that there is colour in some sections. Science Fiction and Fantasy are full of dark colours and the books covers in the section entitled Policiers (Crime) are mostly black. However, novels and poetry, even the section called American Literature pale into insignificance among a sea of white. It reminds me of one of the three principles of France l’égalitié and certainly here, all books have the same chance of being found, whether it’s from the library or in the bookshop, not just due to their bland covers, but also due to a government policy called le plan livre and the fixed price of books.

It costs €17.50 to join the library (adult) and its free for children, there is no cost for lending and no fees for late returns. 16 items (books and CD’s) and 3 DVD’s can be borrowed at any one time for a period of 3 weeks and the first renewal can be done online. The library is also full of computers providing free internet access to all members. My only complain is that its closed on Sunday and Monday. C’est la vie en France!

So what kind of books do French people read today? And is it true that nearly half of the fiction read is translated foreign fiction? And why don’t we see more books by French authors in English bookshops?  These questions and more I will talk about in the next post Reading Contemporary French literature.

PeopleIn the meantime, if you want to know what’s popular in France and available now to read in English, check out Gallic Books, who offer the best of what’s available in French translated in English with new titles coming out every month.

I’m looking forward to reading The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern due out in English in February 2014.  If you wish to read it in French, it’s already available with the title Eux sur la photo.

Champ Harmonique MP2013

crédit photo : © Vincent Lucas

This poetic musical installation, entitled Harmonic Fields in English, came to my attention three months ago when I was searching for something interesting to write in the ‘To Do’ section of the destination guide on Marseilles I write for the Easyjet inflight magazine. April’s copy had to be submitted in January.

I knew it wouldn’t be too hard to find something spectacular, as Marseilles has been designated cultural capital of Europe for 2013, a prestigious event on the cultural calendar and one that has resulted in much-needed expenditure giving this seaside city something of a facelift.

I will save the wondrous changes in the city for another post, but yesterday my children and I drove into Marseilles and along the corniche to Les Goudes. I do love that word corniche , the English equivalent doesn’t evoke quite the same warm, exciting, air of anticipation feeling as corniche.

The village of Les Goudes, Marseilles

The village of Les Goudes, Marseilles

The corniche (roughly translated as ledge, more naturally translated as cliff road or coast road) winds its way from the very centre of Marseilles, La Vieux Port past all the beaches and seaside restaurants, beach parks, cafes, cliff-front residences, joggers, sun-seekers and finishes in Les Goudes, which signals the beginning of Les Calanques, huge limestone cliff faces which make it nearly impossible to access the coastline between Marseilles and Cassis, except by boat or on foot. But the rewards for doing so are spectacular.

CIMG3832

The beginning of Les Calanques

Champ Harmonique is the brainchild of Pierre Sauvageot, inspired by the wind and natural instruments of Indonesia, which require no player but the wind and can hang from trees or be placed in nature, allowing her to be playful, moody or melodramatic.

The coastline of Marseilles in the region of Provence could not be more perfect, natures favourite elements here are the sun and the wind, the one we know best from the north-east is the Mistral, but there are many others and yesterday we had a less dramatic, more playful wind, speeding up, then slowing down, her presence never more known and her subtleties never more appreciated than when given something like this spectacular installation to play with.

Nature gets to play here with cellos, drum shakers, glockenspiels, bamboo poles that sing, spinning music boxes, and a lot of other things I can’t even begin to translate like hélices-sirènesépouvantails balinais, tepees chromatiques, graals pentatoniques, arcs sonores, arbres à flûtes, cannes à pêche à lacrotale… 500 instruments in total.

It is a poetic symphony to experience and cannot (and should not says Pierre Sauvageot) be captured easily on film, but the stunning environment must be shared and if you have the occasion to visit the south of France during 2013, this is merely a taste of the events happening during the Marseilles Provence cultural capital celebrations.

CIMG3841Champ Harmonique is open until the 28th April in Les Goudes, Marseilles. It’s free to enter and the installation is supervised on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays and although it is open and accessible at all other times, some of the instruments are disabled during the unattended periods.

In true French style, (a sit down leisurely lunch remains a significant priority here for all), the installation is closed every day from 12–2pm.

And there will be a special open air concert on the evening of the 25th, the night of the full moon!

Titanic Revisited Part II

There are so many untold tales and now 100 years on from the Titanic tragedy, stories continue to be retold and others narrated for the first time, linked to the events that unfolded in the wake of the tragedy. Not only do we read accounts of those who were on the boat, but the event is used in fiction, a convenient device for eliminating a character such as the loss of the cousin and heir in Julian Fellowes Downton Abbey series, this event triggering the inheritance crisis that is at the centre of this drama. I read that if all the characters from fictional novels were indeed on the Titanic, it would more than triple the number of passengers she carried and sink it for sure.

Christopher Ward’sAnd the Band Played On’ relates what happened after the sinking, the confusion and sometimes fictitious messages portrayed by the media, the arrival of the rescue ship SS Carpathia and the subsequent sailing and controversy surrounding the decisions made on-board the Mackay-Bennett, commissioned to return to the site to retrieve bodies. The author is the grandson of Jock Hume and Mary Costin; Jock was on the Titanic and his fiancé Mary awaited his return, three months pregnant with their first and only child.

The Daily Mirror assured its readers that all 2,209 passengers and crew on board the Titanic had been saved  and that ‘the hapless giant’ was being towed safely to New York.

Jock Hume was a 21-year-old Scottish violinist who had made many sailings across the Atlantic; it is believed he lied about his age as he first went to sea in 1905, when he was 14 years old. On the Titanic’s embarkation list, his age is given as 28. He stood on deck with the other members of the band and they played music until it was no longer possible, the band knowing that their act of altruism would likely be the death of them. It is a memory that many survivors recalled, those who were fortunate enough to be waiting in a lifeboat, watching the tragedy unfold before them to tunes that would forever haunt them.

Jock Hume & fiancé Mary Costin

When it was no longer possible to stand, they strapped their instruments to their chests and jumped into the freezing cold waters together. None of the band members survived, however two of their bodies were recovered, Band Master Wallace Hartley (his violin case still strapped to him) and Jock Hume. Hours after the Titanic sank, White Star Line commissioned the Mackay-Bennett to recover the bodies of victims. Of the 209 bodies they brought back, 150 were laid to rest at three Halifax cemeteries. Jock Hume was buried in the Fairview cemetery, a site where visitors still pay their respects today.

The book shares little of the lives of Jock and Mary and focuses more on Jock’s father Andrew Hume, who was also a violinist. He paints an ugly picture of Andrew Hume as a difficult father, a fraudulent businessman and profiteer of his son’s death who rejected Mary and made disturbing accusations against her and the unborn child.

Ward recounts the trial of Jock’s 18-year-old sister Kate who pulled a prank on her father and stepmother in the form of a letter informing them of enemy involvement in her sister’s death during WWI; this escalated into a national outrage and the risk of contravening a newly passed Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) which gave the government wide-ranging powers for the duration of the First World War. Anyone charged under the Act would face a military trial by court martial with a maximum sentence of death by hanging or firing squad.

Heroic Musicians of the Titanic

The account of well researched historical facts following the sinking of the Titanic, lend the story a credibility that kept me interested throughout the book. What left me somewhat bemused was the sense of judgement against the Grandfather Andrew Hume. True, he appears to have been less than the perfect father, but he was a successful and motivated businessman and musician, even if exaggeration and a few lies did assist him (doesn’t that continue today?). However, between these pages, there is little room for compassion for the man, we only see him in the most negative light, which I find a little sad in a story portrayed by his great-grandson. To lose a wife, a son and be subject to the murderous revenge of his daughter surely deserves an ounce of compassion, no matter how unscrupulous he was as a person.

A Love of Words and Music

I have been struggling a little to finish ‘The Maid and the Queen’, what with school holidays, the French presidential elections (which I voted in for the first time), working on promoting my Aromatherapy business and socialising more than usual, including attending an excellent concert of the cult singer/artist ‘Camille’ at Le Silo in Marseille on Friday.

Camille

No one song can possibly represent what a performance by this artist represents, she sings, uses her voice and body as an instrument, dances barefoot in her sacking dress and easily extracted volunteers from the audience to participate.  She is total inspiration, if you would like listen, here is a sample ‘Mars is no Fun’.

So no book chat today, instead I will share a fun word cloud tool that I discovered thanks to Elodie at  ‘Commuting Girl’ called Tagxedo into which you can copy any text or enter your blog or website name and the tool will analyse the content and show you which are the most popular words and how often they are used.

So Voila! For this blog ‘Word by Word’, here is an image of the most common words used and I am delighted that the word ‘Word’ is indeed such a dominant feature.

Intrigued, I decided to put the text of my ‘sitting on the shelf’ novel as I have always wondered which words I might be over using.  So I am not going to say anything more about the novel, except that it is called ‘A Piece of the Mosaic’ and here is a clue to what lies within.

So what does your blog, novel, poem,story look like?