Elizabeth and her German Garden, Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von ArminStaying overnight with friends in England just before Christmas, this book by Elizabeth von Arnim was placed on my bedside table and though there was no chance I would finish it, I was captivated and charmed by Elizabeth’s garden right from those first few pages.

May 7th – I love my garden. I am writing in it now in the late afternoon loveliness, much interrupted by the mosquitoes and the temptation to look at all the glories of the new green leaves washed half an hour ago in a cold shower. Two owls are perched near me, and are carrying on a long conversation that I enjoy as much as any warbling of nightingales. The gentleman owl says, and she answers from her tree a little way off,, beautifully assenting to and completing her lord’s remark, as becomes a properly constructed German she-owl. They say the same thing over and over again so emphatically that I think it must be something nasty about me; but I shall not let myself become frightened away by the sarcasm of owls.

I left without the book, only for it to land on my doorstep late January on my birthday, and in these cold harsh months when the comforts of a garden are not so easy to find, when I have been finding solace instead in the nature essays of Kathleen Jamie and the short stories of Tove Jansson (review to come), this novel was a welcome respite.

Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim

It is fiction, though reads very much like an autobiography and was initially published anonymously in 1898. The author (a cousin of Katherine Mansfield) is said to have been born in Sydney, in NZ and in England, I’m not sure about any of that, but her parents did leave Sydney and return to England where she was raised (while her father’s brother and family remained in New Zealand).

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

It seems likely that Katherine Mansfield spent time with these relations when she moved to England herself, I found one reference confirming this, a comment by the journalist (and relation of the two) Louise Ahearn, who is currently researching Elizabeth’s life and it is mentioned in the book that Katherine visited her cousin at the home she built Chateau Soleil, in Switzerland.

On a tour of Europe, while in Rome with her father when she was 23-years-old, her talented piano playing was overheard by Il Conte the German Graf Henning August von-Armin-Schlagenthin, who was travelling to help get over the death of his wife and child the previous year. After a persistent courtship they were married and soon settled into upper-class life in Berlin, where she gave birth to three girls in quick succession.

Nassenheide Schloss, the family estate by Alexander Duncker ex wikipedia

Nassenheide Schloss, the family estate by Alexander Duncker ex wikipedia

Not happy in Berlin and homesick for England, in 1896 she was introduced to the family estate Nassenheide, ninety miles north of Berlin in Pomerania. A seventeenth century-schloss, located at the time near the German border (now in Poland), it had been a convent and had not been lived in for more than 25 years, surrounded by an unkempt, rambling, derelict garden which Elizabeth immediately fell in love with. She insisted on living there and it seems she got her way (at least for the summer months), much to the chagrin of her husband, whom she affectionately refers to in the novel as the Man of Wrath.

The book captures many moments of appreciation of this unorthodox wilderness the character Elizabeth is so content within, and equal moments of candour at the annoyance of those who dare impose themselves to visit. She has difficulty keeping the gardener who often hands in his notice while she somehow convinces him to stay, until events dictate that drastic action is necessary to get rid of him.

The gardener has been here a year and has given me notice regularly on the first of every month, but up to now has been induced to stay on. On the first of this month he came as usual, and with determination written on every feature told me he intended to go in June, and that nothing should alter his decision. I don’t think he knows much about gardening, but he can at least dig and water, and some of the plants he plants grow, besides which he is the most unflaggingly industrious person I ever saw, and has the great merit of never appearing to take the faintest interest in what we do in the garden. So I have tried to keep him on, not knowing what the next one may be like, and when I asked him what he had to complain of and he replied “Nothing,” I could only conclude that he has a personal objection to me because of my eccentric preference for plants in groups rather than plants in lines. Perhaps, too, he does not like the extracts from gardening books I read to him sometimes when he is planting or sowing something new.

The author is at her best when describing her longing for the garden and the simple pleasure it brings her, though equally adept are her recounts of conversations with city ladies of her social standing, capturing their inability to comprehend that it is by her own choice that she spends so much time in this savage wilderness, they are convinced they must feel sorry for her and that she has been deposed there, belonging as they do to that breed of women who absolutely require the regular company of their peers and the invitations to social occasions, something Elizabeth does her best to avoid.

Content with the book, inspired by but lacking the garden, we instead take a drive and a stroll around a much closer abandoned ruin, appreciating its beauty among the weeds.

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Ruins of L’oppidum de la Quille, Puy Sainte Réparade

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The fading winter light of Provence, Puy Sainte Réparade

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.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (Japan) – Eleven Dark Tales

RevengeWow! Those of you who have been reading this blog long enough to remember my post on Why People Don’t Read Short Stories may remember that they are something I usually savour, rarely devouring an entire collection in one sitting, but Yoko Ogawa breaks the mould and her newly published book Revenge is full of hooks and devices that stopped me putting it aside and saw me instead ploughing on to read one after the after.

Like a curious sea creature taking the glistening bait, after reading the first story, I dove into the next, caught in the deft grip of Ogawa’s clever and haunting narration, each story carrying the slimmest thread into the next, sufficient to keep the reader interested and more than that, inquisitive to continue and see what she would come up with next.

I first read Yoko Ogawa last year, attracted by her slim collection of three stories contained within The Diving Pool and then her novella The Housekeeper + The Professor, they are very different books, so I was interested in how this collection would compare.

tristes revancesShe has written prolifically over the years and much of her work has been translated into French, very little thus far in English, though perhaps that will change as her short stories are increasingly appearing in contemporary English language publications. The Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburō Ōe when speaking about her work said:

‘Yoko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in prose that is gentle yet penetrating.’

Revenge is an apt title, there are traces of it in every story, calculated revenge, obsessive revenge, inexplicable revenge and cold-blooded revenge. Each story exists on its own, but I read it like a novel, not wanting to pause between titles and feeling right from the end of the first story a tightness in the solar plexus and realisation that I had been holding my breath.

It’s not just the story, it’s awe at how she can write in such an engaging way, where very little actually happens, but we begin to understand more about what is going on in the mind of the character from all the little details she gives, creating a growing image in our own minds, just before she delivers the final blow. And even when we don’t know much about a particular character, someone on the periphery perhaps, not important to the story, chances are we are about to find out more about them in the next story. And so we read on to find out if we guessed right or if she will insert some other connection.

I share this from the blurb, which encapsulates something of these stories in a more concise manner than I ever could:

An aspiring writer moves into a new apartment and discovers that her landlady has murdered her husband. Years later, the writer’s stepson reflects upon his stepmother and the strange stories she used to tell him. Meanwhile, a surgeon’s lover vows to kill him if he does not leave his wife. Before she can follow-through on her crime of passion, though, the surgeon will cross paths with another remarkable woman, a cabaret singer whose heart beats delicately outside of her body. But when the surgeon promises to repair her condition, he sparks the jealousy of another man who would like to preserve the heart in a custom tailored bag. Murderers and mourners, mothers and children, lovers and innocent bystanders—their fates converge in a darkly beautiful web that they are each powerless to escape.

Ogawa is certainly not the first writer to do this, to infuse stories with their subtle threads and connections, Alice Hoffman does it with Blackbird House, Colum McCann did it with Let The Great World Spin and I believe Cloud Atlas (which I have not read) has something that makes it too, more like vaguely connected stories than a novel.

jigsawRevenge isn’t a complicated kind of clever though, there’s no need to question or ponder too deeply over it, the links are clear, but it will leave you wondering how she does it, how she maps out those stories and creates those links. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with multiple subjects, the letters R E V E N G E scratched across the surface.

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

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

FindingsHer latest poetry collection The Overhaul recently won the Costa Prize for poetry, another accolade for this award-winning writer who has found her niche, her publisher previously having had difficulty placing her work in a clear genre.

Findings was, by anyone’s standards, a fiendishly tricky sell. Jamie’s choice of the essay form was unfashionable; her subjects (Orkney in midwinter, a pair of nesting peregrines, 21st-century flotsam on a Hebridean shoreline) were queer and disparate. Her publisher wasn’t even sure how the book should be classified. Travel writing? Not quite: none of the essays took Jamie outside her native Scotland; many were written from her own back door. Autobiography? The book was bewitchingly first-person, but there was no sense of a coherent memoir.

An extract from the Guardian’s Kathleen Jamie – A Life in Writing

 

Nesting Peregrine Photo by Christophe Cage, Wikipedia

I see them as wonderful nature essays, a form of creative non-fiction, much more than notes of a nature walk, though they are  inspired by her time on the Hebridean and Orkney Islands and near her home in Fife; but with the purpose of observing and learning to capture in words what she sees, without the need to analyse.  She describes watching ospreys and peregrines and shares her concern over whether they are nesting or not, there having been evidence of only two pair of these birds attempting to nest in the entire country.

She moves away from identifying and labelling what she sees, towards painting a picture with words, a description so apt, it is as if you are there with her as that large unknown bird she describes so vividly traverses the sky overhead.

This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse. To still the part of the brain that’s yammering, ‘My God, what’s that? A stork, a crane, an ibis – don’t be silly, it’s just a wild heron.’ Sometimes we have to hush the frantic inner voice that says ‘Don’t be stupid,’ and learn again to look, to listen.

Visiting a few of the Scottish Hebridean Islands, Ceann Iar, Coll, meandering along the tide line of inlets, she and her companions find the washed up remains of a small whale, a bit of a plane and other flotsam including seal’s vertebrae, an orange traffic cone, driftwood and plastic garbage.

This is what we take away from Ceann Iar: a bleached whale’s scapula, not the door of a plane: an orb of quartz, not a doll’s head.

Visiting a Shieling – from Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories (1939) by Emily McDonald

Traces of contemporary life at the water’s edge and higher up in the hills, she walks among remnants of an earlier life, the shielings, now abandoned summer huts made of stone and turf, built in the mountain pastures where girls often spent their summers, grazing the animals, receiving visits once a week to take back the cheese and butter they’d produced and to replenish their food stocks, not to mention the young men who paid calls on them in the evening, the time passing sharing local news, story-telling, fun and laughter.

The top of the year, the time of ease and plenty. The people would come up from the farmsteads below around the beginning of July – ‘the girls went laughing up the glen’ as the poem says – and return at harvest time. Up here, they made milk, butter and cheese, and it was woman’s work. What a loss that seems now: a time when women were guaranteed a place in the wider landscape, our own place in the hills.

Not only does Kathleen Jamie evoke something of the present and the past in her observations of these remote islands, she leaves you reminding yourself to pay more attention, to be mindful, to stop, to listen, to stand and stare, to look up – promising as a reward, a renewed connection to our surroundings and an appreciation of all the species that live and have lived within it.

To read Kathleen Jamie is the next best thing to a slow walk in that great living outdoors, I believe she has found the perfect niche.  I’m already looking forward to her next collection of essays ‘Sightlines‘. Do you have a favourite nature writer?