Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
I have long been a fan of Isabel Allende’s novels, although I haven’t read any of her recent books, despite my best intentions. I read many of her early novels, in Spanish, and I enjoyed her take on Magic Realism, which I found inspiring. When I saw this novel, which combined Allende’s writing with a historical subject close to my heart (I’m from Barcelona, like the protagonist of the novel, and some of my relatives lived experiences quite similar to those Victor goes through), I had to read it. And although it is a very different reading experience from that of The House of the Spirits, I enjoyed it enormously.
This novel is the story of Victor Dalmau, whom we meet at a very difficult moment, during the Spanish Civil War. He was studying Medicine and helps look after the wounded in battle, while his younger brother, Guillem, fights for the Republic. Told in the third person, mostly from Victor’s point of view (there is a fragment where the novel deviates from that, but there is a good reason for it), the book follows his life pretty closely and in chronological order, although not all periods of his life are shared in the same detail. We learn about his family, his parents, Roser (his brother’s girlfriend and one of the students of Victor’s father, a musician), and hear first-hand of his experiences during the war, the retreat (“la retirada”), and the problems a huge number of Spaniards who escaped to France had to face once there.
Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, is fundamental to the story, not only because he chartered the SS Winnipeg that took many Spaniards (around two thousand) to Chile, escaping from Franco’s regime and the French camps, but also because he personally appears in the novel and each chapter is introduced by one of his poems. In fact, the title of the book also comes from one of his poems, and it is a descriptive metaphor of the country, Chile, that welcomed the refugees with open arms. The story also follows Victor’s later adventures, his studies and work as a cardiologist, Roser’s works as a musician and her creation of an orchestra, and the historical and political upheavals they have to confront, with further displacements and persecution. What is to be an emigrant, how different people adapt to different realities and countries (Victor and Roser are pretty different in this respect), and also the invaluable contribution those very same immigrants make to the very fabric of the country that takes them in, are threads that run through the whole novel.
This is my first experience of reading Allende’s work in English, and I thought the translation was excellent. The language is both functional and beautiful, capturing the emotions of the characters, and vividly portraying their experiences, at times harrowing and at others uplifting. I was very touched by the narrative, and although that might be in part due to my personal connection to the material (not only the historical aspect, but also the experience of life in a different country) , the effect was not limited to the parts of the story I was familiar with. The adventures of Victor and Roser in Chile, Allende’s government (of course, Salvador Allende was Isabel’s uncle), and the military coup, further tested their endurance and made them start again in Venezuela. Added to the larger historical events, we have a story of love, family, and displacement, which will resonate with many readers, even if they are not familiar with the particular historical and geographical setting. Circumstances might change, but the problems are universal.
The author talks about the genesis of the book in a note at the beginning of the book and explains it in more detail in the acknowledgements at the end. Although this is a novel, it is based on real accounts, and its main character was inspired by another Victor, Victor Pey, who lived to be 103, and who experienced many of the trials and tribulations we read about. Allende creates a catalogue of varied characters, complex and credible, and mixes historical figures with fictional ones seamlessly. Victor is a quiet man, hard-working, who prefers action to idle talk, and whose mission in life seems to be to help others. He is a survivor who can be naïve about the consequences of his actions and about the motivations of others, but he always expects the best of others and hopes against hope. Roser, his wife, is a fabulous character, a strong woman who keeps going no matter what, and their relationship evolves through the book, never getting old and with plenty of surprises. There are plenty of memorable characters in the book, some that play a larger part than others, and some that keep popping up at regular intervals as time passes. I was intrigued by the Solan family, fascinated by Juana, their lifelong servant, and also appreciated the small details that add a human touch to the historical figures, Pablo Neruda in particular.
I loved the writing style, poetic and lyrical at times, despite dealing in some very harsh topics. The flow varies, and some historical periods are described in more detail than others, as happens in memoirs. I’ve read comments of readers who say there is too much telling in this novel. There is a fair amount of telling, that is true, by the very nature of the story, but it suits the personality of the protagonist, and to be honest, I cried with the story as it is. I’m not sure I would have managed to read it if it were even more emotional. (I smiled as well, and it is a hopeful story overall, but it did touch me deeply).
I have highlighted many passages, and it’s difficult to choose one or two, but I decided to give it a try.
Here Victor Dalmau observes the work of the female volunteers looking after injured soldiers in the Spanish Civil War:
Volunteer women would moisten their lips, whisper to them, and comfort them as if they were their own children, in the knowledge that somewhere else, another woman might be cradling their own son or brother.
If you are very sensitive, you might want to look away now:
This was to be his most stubborn, persistent memory of the war: that fifteen- or sixteen-year-old boy, still smooth-cheeked, filthy with the dirt of battle and dried blood, laid out on a stretcher with his heart exposed to the air.
And I had to include one from Pablo Neruda, quoted here in chapter 2.
Nothing, not even victory,
Can wipe away the terrible hole of blood.
I love this novel, which I recommend to readers of historical fiction, particularly those interested in the Spanish Civil War and/or the history of Chile, to fans of Isabel Allende, and also to those who’ve never read her before, but are looking for a compelling story, masterfully written, with a memorable cast of characters and a story with many parallels to recent events. I attended a conference about la Retirada (the retreat of around 500000 Spaniards, both military and civilians, escaping to France from Spain at the end of the Civil War, in February 1939) on its 8oth anniversary earlier this year, and looking at the pictures, it gave us all pause, because if we just changed the background of the photographs and the clothes, we could have been watching the news. Like those images, this is a novel that will stay with me. I might be biased but that’s my prerogative and I can’t recommend it enough.
Like most memoirs of figure skaters written at peak saleability (i.e. right after an Olympics), this is a book about someone with most of their life - and possibility the most interesting part - still ahead of them. So I didn't come to "Beautiful on the Outside" with particularly high expectations, and I'd say, without being mean, that my level of expectations was met. This is the somewhat gossipy sentimental history of a young gay man negotiating the various levels of a competitive sport that requires concentrated effort for ten to twenty years (in Rippon's case, closer to twenty) in order to reach - or possibly not reach - the prize of an Olympic medal.
The difference between this memoir and, as a good point of comparison, Brian Orser's "Orser: A Skater's Life" (1988) are largely the differences between society in general 30 years ago and now. Orser's "autobiography" is heavily filtered through a co-writer's authorial voice. His public persona (as it existed at the time, through the press and television) was similarly heavily controlled, and certainly - by general consent - did not include revelations about his sexuality, let alone any youthful indiscretions such as drinking or drug use. While both books feed into the notion of the skater as a marketable commodity, Rippon's marketability is based upon the candour (some would say the excessive candour) of the world of social media in which he exists as a personality far beyond his actual accomplishments as a competitive skater. Far from being considered a drawback, his status as the "first openly gay athlete" to compete for the US in the Olympics is a selling-point for Rippon. His public twitter spat with notoriously homophobic Vice-President Pence just before the 2018 Olympics only fed into that particular identification of Rippon as the [sassy] gay one, an identification he doesn't particularly seem to mind.
Rippon's voice here is almost certainly pretty much entirely his own. He sets the tone (and probably alienates a generation or two of readers) by dropping his first f-bomb on the first page. He withholds (in a half-hearted sort of way, easily circumvented by Google) the names of a few people about whom he has uncomplimentary things to say, such as Nikolai Morosov, his first major-league coach. His story is far less the "I entered competition X, placed 2nd, and then dealt with injury" formula of the memoirs of Orser's generation, and includes far more of the "I spent several weeks sulking in bed (or partying, or refusing to work with coach Y)" of, say, Johnny Weir's generation of memoir. Not that there aren't competition results and nasty injuries chronicled here - it's just that they're not the entire narrative. This makes for a more interesting read, though I doubt very much whether the life itself was more interesting.
Despite his public life, Rippon appears to be still fairly much enwrapped in a celebrity bubble of sorts; and it's entirely possible he'll make a career out of that. If he does find a path to more interesting, if somewhat more low-profile things (as Orser has done, becoming a truly world-class coach), I hope that he ends up writing about that too. He can even leave in the f-bombs, if he feels he has to!
The question was not, Why had she been born? - the answer to that came simply enough; she had been born in consequence of the satisfying of her parents' instincts. The question was, What had she been born for? Finding herself in the world, a new person who had never lived before, but who was obliged to live then, she had wanted to know what was to be the purport of her existence. Mrs. Yorke had pointed her to motherhood; she had said nothing about men and women's love.... But Chrystal could answer the question for herself now. It is the cultivation of all the faculties that makes a human being complete.The passions, the affections, the physical, mental, and moral powers, must all be exercised. She had children, two acquaintances, books, and active enjoyment, but she could not be content. The New Woman wanted the New Man.
As a manifesto from 1896, that's not bad - there's little here that a modern woman, let alone a modern feminist, would quarrel with. The sequence of events that the anonymous "Exponent" has chosen to illustrate her manifesto is a bit more questionable: it smacks of too much selfishness, as even the sympathetic reviewer in The University Magazine and Free Review of 1897 felt bound to point out. Chrystal enters (albeit consentingly) into a more or less arranged marriage with a man who has poor health, and bears a sickly child by him. Admittedly she does not abandon the child, but she does abandon the man; she then has an affair with a man she does not love, in order to have a healthy child, whom she quite obviously favours over the first; finally, she finds a man philosophically aligned with her, and marries him for love and has a third, and most favoured child by him. The trouble is, in carrying out this highly mechanical demonstration of the steps of enlightenment in adjusting the relations between the sexes, the author manages to create a heroine who is at best unlikeable and at worst inhuman. It's a tricky business, when arguing against a social order that demands women submerge their own needs and desires in unselfish service to everyone else, to find the point at which self-assertion becomes mere selfishness, and this author, alas, didn't quite land on it. Chrystal's Progress, like that of the Pilgrim, is not the story of a real human being, but a series of scenes illustrating philosophical points.
Still, it's a fascinating document of its time. I found the title in the University of Toronto Libary catalogue, and read it (in a scan of that library's copy) on the Internet Archive.
I'm sure I'm not saying anything very original when I write that the principal virtue of Mrs. Gaskell's Life of her friend Charlotte Bronte is the immediacy, both chronological and, to a degree, personal, between the life and the writing of the life; while, on the other hand, the principal drawback of the work is a tendency to suppress uncomfortable or unflattering details, not just because of Victorian prudery (though there's some of that at work) but also because the biography was written when Charlotte's one remaining close relative, her father, was still alive and was in fact the one who asked for the book to be written.
I find it interesting, though it perhaps says as much about me as about Bronte, that the passages I have chosen to highlight as I read almost all refer to her opinions on other authors. It also, I think, says quite a lot about Mrs. Gaskell's choice of materials from the reasonably large amount of correspondence (most of it from one close friend, though) she had at her disposal.
Here's a passage that I find in equal measure fascinating and irritating (the latter because the entire set of recommendations, to a female friend, are premised on what is "safe"):
You ask me to recommend you some books for your perusal. I will do so in as few words as I can. If you like poetry, let it be first-rate; Milton, Shakspeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will, though I don't admire him), Scott, Byron, Campbell, Wordsworth, and Southey. Now don't be startled at the names of Shakspeare and Byron. Both these were great men, and their works are like themselves. You will know how to choose the good, and to avoid the evil; the finest passages are always the purest, the bad are invariably revolting; you will never wish to read them over twice. Omit the comedies of Shakspeare, and the Don Juan, perhaps the Cain, of Byron, though the latter is a magnificent poem, and read the rest fearlessly; that must indeed be a depraved mind which can gather evil from Henry VIII., from Richard III., from Macbeth, and Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. Scott's sweet, wild, romantic poetry can do you no harm. Nor can Wordsworth's, nor Campbell's, nor Southey's--the greatest part at least of his; some is certainly objectionable. For history, read Hume, Rollin, and the Universal History, if you can; I never did. For fiction, read Scott alone; all novels after his are worthless. For biography, read Johnson's Lives of the Poets, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Southey's Life of Nelson, Lockhart's Life of Burns, Moore's Life of Sheridan, Moore's Life of Byron, Wolfe's Remains. For natural history, read Bewick and Audubon, and Goldsmith and White's history of Selborne. For divinity, your brother will advise you there. I can only say, adhere to standard authors, and avoid novelty."
(The casual admission that she didn't bother with reading history made me smile).
And here, although no doubt quoted to death in the critical literature, are her thoughts on Austen:
Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would have rather written "Pride and Prejudice,' or 'Tom Jones,' than any of the 'Waverley Novels'? I had not seen 'Pride and Prejudice' till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate, daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully-fenced, highly-cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.
The liking for Scott appears to be genuine: on her one trip north to Scotland, she made a point of spending time in Scott country & at Abbotsford, and she also mentions elsewhere the Scott monument as one of the highlights of Edinburgh.
Gaskell leaves us with a rather sad portrait of a highly intelligent woman, bedevilled by lack of self-esteem and recurrent depression, and trapped by circumstance (unhealthy surroundings and susceptibility to an infectious disease). It's amazing, in fact, that she produced three high-quality novels before her untimely death (four, if you count the first-written but only posthumously published The Professor), although it's less amazing that the first-published, Jane Eyre, which propelled her to a most uncomfortable celebrity status, is still generally acknowledged to be the best.
Inevitably, a biography of Charlotte will by default also be a primary source on her siblings. Some of the details about Emily, especially one violent incident with her dog, remain uncomfortably in the memory. One can sense that Mrs. Gaskell has to exert herself to temper what was probably a fairly common reaction to the most unsociable of the Brontës - sheer dislike. Here is her summary of the relationship between the sisters, as she saw it:
Emily was impervious to influence; she never came in contact with public opinion, and her own decision of what was right and fitting was a law for her conduct and appearance, with which she allowed no one to interfere. Her love was poured out on Anne, as Charlotte's was on her. But the affection among all the three was stronger than either death or life.
Mrs. Gaskell was a better contemporary biographer than Charlotte Bronte would have had reason to expect: she consulted widely instead of just making the work a memoir of her own association with Bronte, and as another woman writer, she had a particular sensitivity to the motives and circumstances under which Bronte wrote, or didn't write. Different though they were, in personality and in politics, Mrs. Gaskell had strong grounds for understanding and sympathizing with her subject, and she shapes her narrative well. If a modern reader grinds her teeth at one of the sympathetic motives of that narrative - to defend Charlotte Bronte against contemporary accusations that she was coarse, vulgar, unfeminine, etc, accusations that we now see as absurd - still, there was enough detail and enough intelligent analysis brought to the shaping of that argument that after all these years, we can still see this biography as a primary source on a very interesting writer.
As with all contemporary sources, too, reading this book was a motivation for me to seek out a more recent biography, with all the promise of perspective and (possibly) wider-ranging sources that such a work will have. In particular, I look forward to exploring the one obviously gaping hole in this biography, the nature of Bronte's relationship with her teacher/employer Constantin Héger, in Belgium, who leaves his mark so heavily on her novels.