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review 2017-09-06 11:00
A Young Woman’s Flight: The Adventure of the Black Lady by Aphra Behn
The Adventure of the Black Lady, and the Lucky Mistake (Dodo Press) - Aphra Behn

The English prose novel as we know it today is an amazingly recent invention. Its rise began only in the seventeenth century thanks to writers like Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)… and Aphra Behn (1640-1689) whose work was rediscovered only in the early twentieth century (»»» read my author’s portrait). Although in her time Aphra Behn was first of all a renowned playwright, she also wrote several novels in her later years. By modern standards, however, these novels are hardly more than novelettes or even short stories.  One of these little known prose works from the pen of the first Englishwoman who was able make her living as a writer is The Adventure of the Black Lady first published in 1684. It’s the story of a young woman called Bellamora who has come from Hampshire to Covent Garden in the hope to find refuge and help with a cousin of hers.

 

In her story Aphra Behn skilfully portrays Bellamora as a very naïve and foolish young woman who got herself into serious trouble and sees her only chance in flight. Both her parents are dead and she left her uncle’s estate pretending to visit a recently married cousin living not far away, while in reality she headed for town right away and with the intention to hide for a while in the “populous and public place” where she had another relation who would surly help her out. When Bellamora arrives in Covent Garden, however, she finds that her cousin doesn’t live there anymore and, even worse, that nobody there seems ever to have heard of her. Understandably, the young woman is desperate and uncertain what to do. The author makes her wander aimlessly through the parish in a hired coach and ask people if they know her cousin and her whereabouts. And surprise, surprise, an impoverished gentlewoman who lets lodgings for a living tells Bellamora that her cousin and her husband have been living with her for more than a year, but that they went out and she didn’t expect them back before the night. Greatly relieved Bellamora asks to be allowed to wait for the couple and, trusting as she is, she soon pours out her sorrowful heart to the friendly gentlewoman. When the Lady and her husband return at last, Bellamora is again plunged into despair because she isn’t her cousin after all. Luck would have it, though, that the Lady is an old acquaintance whom Bellamora doesn’t recognise at first, but who recalls the young woman at once and bids her welcome. And again Bellamora pours out her heart and this time she reveals the whole truth to the almost stranger, namely that she is eight months pregnant and fled from the advances of the child’s father whom she doesn’t want to marry for fear that after the wedding he will love her no longer. As befits a romantic “novel” of the time, with a few other lucky – and unlikely – twists brought about by both the gentlewoman and the Lady who is not the sought for cousin, Aphra Behn drives Bellamora’s story towards a happy ending.

 

Instead of the dodo press book that contains also a novelette titled The Lucky Mistake, I read the free web edition of The Adventure of the Black Lady published by eBooks@Adelaide and found it an entertaining and very quick read about Romantic love and the desperation of a fallen young woman in England of the Restoration. Although Ernest A. Baker included it in his 1905 collection of The Novels of Mrs. Aphra Behn, it’s really a short story filling no more than a couple of pages. If it weren’t for the spelling and some peculiarities of language, the story would feel very modern almost like historical fiction written in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. I warmly recommend it!

 

The Adventure of the Black Lady, and the Lucky Mistake (Dodo Press) - Aphra Behn 

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review 2017-07-05 11:00
A Suffocating Village: Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda
Death in Spring - Mercè Rodoreda,Martha Tennent

Less than a year ago I reviewed a novel by Catalan author Mercè Rodoreda (1908-1983) who is much celebrated in her country but virtually unknown elsewhere. I was so impressed by the book that I felt like reading also others of her works and from the two novels published posthumously, both of them unfinished, I eventually picked the one available in English translation, namely Death in Spring or in the original Catalan La mort i la primavera, i.e. Death and Spring. At first the title seems a bit strange, if not contradictory because it links death with nature’s rebirth after winter, but given that the novel flows over with powerful as well as poetical symbols and metaphors of life and death it’s quite appropriate. It’s a complex and well-constructed story about society that reminds me a lot of the works of Franz Kafka although it’s different in style.

 

The nameless I-narrator and protagonist makes his first appearance as a fourteen-year-old boy who enters the river passing under his mountain village built generations earlier on the debris of a huge rock-slip. He inhales the beauty of nature surrounding him and realises that he is “being followed by a bee, as well as by the stench of manure and the honey scent of blooming wisteria” representing the village with its pink houses that is always on his mind. As it turns out people there have many rituals to keep misfortune at bay. On the other side of the river is the forest of the dead with a tree dedicated to every inhabitant living or already dead with a plaque and a ring. During funerals all children are locked away into the stifling wooden kitchen cupboards, a custom that clearly mirrors the cruel death ritual practiced by the villagers for generations that requires to force pink cement down the throats of the dying in order to keep their souls from escaping and turning into shadows creeping “among the shrubs, always threatening to attack the village”. At the same time, and less obviously, it reflects the oppressive atmosphere in the village where everybody has to follow strict rules and not even the children are allowed to breathe freely in the literal as well as in the figurative sense. For being a boy the narrator doesn’t understand why the man whom he watches from behind a shrub hollows out a tree and enters it to die. As it turns out the man is his father, but instead of showing himself and talking to him, the boy returns to the village and tells the blacksmith. Everybody rushes out to give the already half-dead father the necessary cement treatment. With his teenage stepmother whom everybody considers retarded and strange he roams the village and its surroundings by night taking fun in vandalising the forest of the dead and using the pink powder of the cave to find out where its waters flow – thus defying the old village rituals that don’t make sense to them. Before long their adolescent urges take over and they have a daughter, but the community doesn’t accept them neither as individuals nor as a family because they are just too different, too free, too alive…

 

Many reviewers argue that Death in Spring represents life during the Spanish Civil War and in the rigid regime of General Franco that followed and that forced the author into exile, but in my opinion this is too limited an interpretation. I think that the author more generally portrayed the workings of human society where conservative forces use to be the stronger ones except in times of deepest discontent and misery. Even in our modern western civilisation that holds individual freedom in such high esteem, those who aren’t like all others or behave in a different, maybe even revolutionary way are marginalised, excluded and eventually crushed, i.e. driven to suicide or madness like in the novel although more subtly than in a totalitarian regime. In a nutshell: this is another great work of literature that would deserve much more attention. Highly recommended!

 

Death in Spring - Mercè Rodoreda,Martha Tennent 

 

»»» read also my review of In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda.

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review 2017-04-05 11:00
A Widower’s Grief: Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach
Bruges-La-Morte - Georges Rodenbach,Will Stone,Mike Mitchell
BRUGES LA MORTE - GEORGES RODENBACH

Women or men who need to come to terms with the loss of a loved one are popular figures in literature. Often, the grieving find new joy, maybe even new love by the end of the story and at first this also seems to be the case in the late nineteenth-century novel Bruges-la-morte by almost forgotten Belgian journalist, poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898). But he was obsessed with death and so it’s little wonder that his symbolist chef-d'œuvre first published in 1892 is a thoroughly gloomy piece of prose poetry, a short Gothic novel in the vein of his contemporary Oscar Wilde. The book focuses on the melancholy scene of dead or moribund Bruges in Belgium at least as much as on the woebegone protagonist who has chosen the city to indulge in his infinite sorrow after the death of his adored wife and in keeping her memory alive.

 

The central figure of Bruges-la-morte is the widower Hugue Viane who is forty years old and whom the author describes as prematurely aged by grief. In the opening scene, aptly set on a day in November, he has been living in Bruges for five years, i.e. ever since the day after his beloved wife had died. It was the bleak atmosphere of the mediaeval city with its many convents, dark canals and narrow streets that brought him there because it corresponded perfectly with his anguish and allowed him to get completely wrapped up in mourning. In the first edition of his short novel Georges Rodenbach included several black-and-white photos of the city to increase the effect of his very poetical though sombre portrait of Bruges. But he shows the city also as a place of deep religiosity and he makes Hugue Viane live on Quai du Rosaire (Quay of the Rosary!) where a big procession passes every year on Ascension Day. To the widower his house is less a home than it’s a shrine dedicated to his dearest departed. Above all, the drawing rooms serve him as places of adulation. With great skill and in great detail Georges Rodenbach evokes the feeling of two rooms crammed with all kinds of memorabilia of Hugue Viane’s late wife. Some of them can be called her relics with due right, notably the long blonde plait that, on one of the last days of her suffering, he cut from her head instead of just a curl and that he keeps under glass on her now mute piano. The plait is so sacred to him that he doesn’t even dare to touch it! As can be expected of an inconsolable mourner, he leads a withdrawn life following an almost monastic routine. Mostly, he stays at home in his room, but in the late afternoon, he likes to go out for a walk through the city that he loves at this time of day because it’s sad like him. During one of these solitary walks, a woman looking just like his late wife crosses his way. The encounter is so brief that he isn’t sure that he really saw her. Nonetheless, he begins to search her during his walks and one evening there she is again. He follows her into the theatre where she is a dancer. Not without hesitation he addresses her and he can’t help beginning an affair with the woman who seems a second chance for happiness with his wife resurrected. And thus fate takes its fatal course…

 

Overall, Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach is an impressive short novel that flows over with all kinds of most beautiful allegories and metaphors that not only allow but also inspire thorough analysis. I loved its poetical language that offers lots of remarkable images and that feels exceedingly precise in spite or because of the author’s frequent use of vague or ambiguous words or expressions. For me the read was a great pleasure and I can’t thank enough my friend in Belgium who surprised me with the book past year. It’s a shame that such a marvellous piece of fiction had to remain in the darkness of literary oblivion for a hundred years until someone thought of bringing it back to light… and to the attention of avid readers like me.

 

Bruges-La-Morte - Georges Rodenbach,Will Stone,Mike Mitchell 

 

Nota bene:

Since George Rodenbach died already in 1898, the original French versions of his work are all in the public domain and can be downloaded legally and free from sites like Ebooks libres et gratuits. If old translations of this impressive short novel exist, they might be in the public domain too, but all English editions that I found are of very recent date and therefore copyrighted.

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review 2017-02-01 11:00
Saint Augustine and His Abandoned Concubine: Vita Brevis by Jostein Gaarder
Vita Brevis: A Letter to St Augustine - Jostein Gaarder
Das Leben ist kurz = Vita brevis - Jostein Gaarder

During much of European history men shaped the world of things and thought as they believed right and passed over women in silence, if they didn’t hold them in contempt. Highly revered Fathers of the Christian Church like Saint Augustine of Hippo Regius further institutionalised this contempt of women… and of earthly pleasures altogether as shows his autobiography titled Confessiones. In this theological key text he admits that before his conversion to Christianity in 385 he was a man who tasted life to the full. For over ten years he lived with a concubine (probably law forbade a formal marriage) and had a son with her, but in retrospect he regrets this sinful and immoral relationship because it kept him from true love of God. In Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine (also translated into English as The Same Flower) the Norwegian writer, philosopher and theologian Jostein Gaarder gave this abandoned woman a voice.

 

In 1995 in a second-hand bookshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jostein Gaarder comes across an old manuscript in a red box titled Codex Floriae. Its first sentence shows that it’s the letter of a certain Floria Aemilia to Augustinus Aurelius, the Bishop of Hippo Regius in Northern Africa (today: Algeria) who was later to become Saint Augustine. When he translates another sentence, it occurs to him that Floria Aemilia might be the saint’s long-time concubine whom he mentioned in his Confessiones without ever revealing her name. Of course, the author doesn’t know if the seventeenth-century copy is of an authentic letter, but it intrigues him that it might be and he buys it. Back home he makes a copy of the entire letter and sends the original to the Vatican Library for inspection. The Codex Floriae gets lost and the author decides to translate the Latin text from his copy and to publish it as Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine. So far in brief what Jostein Gaarder says in his introduction about the actual letter of Floria Aemilia that makes up the major part of the book.

 

As it soon turns out, the author was right to assume that Floria Aemilia is the concubine of Saint Augustine. The exceptionally intelligent and self-assured woman from Carthage read the Confessiones of her former lover and obviously felt the urgent need to comment on them, notably on the passages dealing with their life together in Northern Africa, Rome and eventually Milan and with the emotional bonds between them that he tries to reduce to sexual desire. But she doesn’t only give her point of view of events (sometimes drifting into bitterness or mockery seeing how religious frenzy distorted his memories and opinions). Thanks to thorough studies of philosophy, theology as well as rhetoric during the years since Augustine sent her back to Carthage, she is able to challenge his notions of (original) sin and morality with great dialectical skill. Above all, she can’t agree with his attitude towards women who are for him the seducers leading men astray from the way to God and Eternal Life. Augustine postulates that all pleasures on Earth are sinful and should be avoided in preparation of life after death, while Floria Aemilia is convinced that pleasures are God-given and that denying them means to deny God’s creation. She supports her arguments with many quotations from classical Greek and Roman sources that Jostein Gaarder points out and explains in footnotes if necessary for understanding.

 

All things considered, Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine isn’t so much a book about Floria Aemilia than it’s about Saint Augustine, his biographical background and above all his philosophy that helped to marginalise women not only in the Christian Church, but in Christian society altogether for more than one and a half millennium. Alone for the critical examination of the Confessiones from a female point of view, it’s a worthwhile read. In addition, it’s well written and easy to follow despite the complex philosophical argument.

 

Many have wondered, if the Codex Floriae really exists or if the “feminist manifesto” of Floria Aemilia is an invention of Jostein Gaarder. As it seems, the author always refused to clearly answer the question. I think that the book is a gorgeous work of fiction.

 

Vita Brevis: A Letter to St Augustine - Jostein Gaarder 

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review 2016-11-01 11:00
When a Woman Loves a Man: The Jib Door by Marlen Haushofer
The Jib Door - Marlen Haushofer
Die Tapetentür - Marlen Haushofer

It’s a well-known truth that love has the potential to make blind for anything unpleasant involved and at all times writers gladly took up the theme to dwell on the tangle and the suffering that results from it. In the history of literature there are scores of novels – all-time classics and probably many more forgotten ones – surrounding ill-matched couples whose relationships are doomed from the start however much they try to bridge the factual, emotional, social or psychological divide. The Jib Door by Marlen Haushofer is an impressive, though often overlooked example of an Austrian novel dealing with passionate love leading into a marriage that is based on the desperate longing to escape loneliness in a “normal” life with a husband and self-denial. First published in 1957, the primarily male critics of the time showed all but enthusiasm for the book because they had neither an interest in nor an understanding for what might be called the female condition in a patriarchal society.

 

The Jib Door is a short novel set in Vienna of the late 1950s that covers a period of only twelve months in the life of thirty-year-old Annette. To tell her story the author skilfully alternates third-person narrative focussing on the protagonist and diary entries that allow a more personal look into her soul. Above all the latter show Annette as a very intelligent and well-read young woman (she likes Kant and Schopenhauer) who despite all contents herself with an unchallenging job as a librarian. From the beginning the novel’s tone is melancholic which corresponds perfectly with her sad past and dull present. Of her family there’s nobody left but her much adored uncle Eugen who raised her together with his rather rigid late wife Johanna. Her mother died when she was two years old and her father, who couldn’t cope with the situation, fled to South America some time later. For years she has been living on her own in her little Viennese apartment enjoying her independence and even being alone. She has many friends with whom she meets regularly and in her adult life she already had several love affairs, but they all ended in boredom and disappointment. Her current relationship is no exception and when her lover leaves her for a job in Paris, she feels relief rather than regret. Then one day she receives a letter from the solicitor Gregor Xanthner because her father has died and she needs to sign papers. To her he seems the paragon of health and happiness, and yet, she doesn’t feel attracted to him at first. However, the more Annette sees of him, the more she falls for him although her friends can’t stand him and she knows that he’ll inevitably hurt her. Annette becomes Gregor’s lover and when she gets pregnant, she gives up her job, her apartment, her independence to marry him and share his life. But he isn’t interested in her as a person and Annette feels increasingly lonely. Moreover, she knows that he betrays her with others when he doesn’t come home for dinner at night. She still clings to him hiding her knowledge and all the while her belly is growing rounder and rounder…

 

In this second novel of hers – that like her other works gives the impression of being at least partly autobiographical – the author paints a very sensitive, psychologically deep and impressive portrait of a young woman in post-war Vienna who longs for love and slides eyes wide open into a relationship that brings her despair and pain instead. Consequently, the protagonist’s pointed reflections on men and love turn out to be rather resigned and gloomy. The Jib Door by Marlen Haushofer definitely isn’t a cheerful book, but thanks to its simple and unpretentious language it was despite all a mere treat to read. And it deserves a much wider audience.

 

The Jib Door - Marlen Haushofer 

 

This Austrian writer’s best remembered and most acclaimed work to this day is a rather impressive dystopian novel that she wrote in the early 1960s. It’s titled The Wall and in June 2014 I reviewed it here on Edith’s Miscellany .

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