Nagasaki by Éric Faye

Thanks to Gallic Books, another recent English translation of a French literary work is being published in 2014, Nagasaki, a slim novella inspired by a newspaper cutting of real life events.

Belgravia Books

Belgravia Bookshop offering Gallic Books and other translations

Shimura Kobo lives alone in a quiet suburban street, by day he works as a meteorologist, he rarely socialises with his colleagues, nor does he see family much, his life causes fewer ripples in Nagasaki than the weather he forecasts for it.

“There comes a time when nothing happens any more. The ribbon of destiny, stretched too wide, has snapped. There’s no more. The shockwave caused by your birth is far, oh so far, behind you now. That is modern life. Your existence spans the distance between failure and success. Between frost and the rising of sap.”

Recently there have been a few barely detectable disturbances to his inanimate way of living. A container of fruit juice seems to have lost a few centimetres, and isn’t there one yoghurt pot less than was there this morning? He begins to take extra care securing his home, yet still has the feeling of something not being quite right.

Nagasaki (2)He sets up a webcam in his home and sits at work watching his kitchen as if studying the meteorological charts, waiting to detect any sign of disturbance.

It is a brief story where the revelation comes early, its slow residual effect only beginning in the aftermath. About halfway the narrative shifts, adding to the mystery of how the revelation impacts Shimura, as we no longer have access to his thoughts.

That it is based on a true story is enough to haunt the reader, but the way Eric Faye narrates it, contributes to the way this story inhabits the mind as we read. Like the best stories, it stays with you long after reading and invites discussion with others about how such a thing could happen in our society.

And it will make you check your door locks more carefully.

 

Note: Thank you to Gallic Books for providing a copy of the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queen Victoria

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

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

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

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

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

Summer by Edith Wharton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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