An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov – Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

When An Evening with Claire was originally published in 1930, Russian author Gaito Gazdanov was living in Paris and hadn’t seen his home country for nearly a decade. This, his first novel, was a success for Gazdanov, bringing him to the attention of other émigré writers, and now that I’ve read it I can understand why. It’s not my usual sort of book but I was drawn to it because I’ve enjoyed other books which have been reissued by Pushkin Press recently and because, apart from Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak, I can’t think of any other 20th century Russian authors that I’ve read. This new edition has an introduction by Bryan Karetnyk, who is also responsible for the excellent English translation, which I found very readable.

The novel opens with our narrator, Kolya, in Paris spending an evening with Claire while her husband is away from home. Although we know very little about Kolya’s relationship with Claire at this stage, we do learn that he first met her ten years ago and has been in love with her ever since. However, they have spent most of that time apart and have only now been reunited. Later that evening, while Claire is asleep, Kolya remembers their first meeting, along with many of the other significant moments in his past. As he continues to remember and reminisce, the story of his life begins to take shape: his childhood, his schooldays, his relationships with family members and his experiences during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed.

We actually see very little of Claire herself and I never really felt that I knew her or understood the sort of person she was, but that didn’t matter too much because the main part of the novel concentrates on Kolya’s own history as it unfolds through a chain of memories. His love for the absent Claire is always there and can be seen as a symbol of hope as he dreams of meeting her again one day. I enjoyed the first half of the novel, which includes anecdotes from Kolya’s childhood and his education at a strict military school and gymnasium, but the second half is more interesting as he begins to remember his time serving with the White Army in the Russian Civil War. It all feels very autobiographical and although I don’t know much about Gaito Gazdanov, I’m sure he must have been drawing on some of his own personal experiences and feelings in the writing of this novel.

At just over 200 pages in this edition, An Evening with Claire is a very short novel, but I thought it was the right length for the story being told. In general, I prefer books with more plot and this one has very little, but while this might have been a problem for me in a longer novel, there was just enough here to interest me and hold my attention throughout those 200 pages. This may sound like a strange comparison, but I was reminded of one of my other recent reads, Goodbye Mr Chips, another short book published in the same decade in which a man is looking back on episodes from earlier in his life. They share a focus on the power of memory, recollections of better days and regret for a disappearing world – which are also the reasons why I think An Evening with Claire would have resonated so much with other Russian émigrés of the 1930s. I would be happy to read more by Gazdanov and I see there are four of his other books available in English from the same publisher.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Historical Musings #68: Historical fiction in translation

Welcome to this month’s post on all things historical fiction.

August was Women in Translation Month, a popular event in the book blogging calendar, and although I was only able to join in with one book – The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani, set in Morocco in the 1940s and 50s – I thought it would be interesting for this month’s Musings to look at some of the other historical fiction novels I have read in translation. I’ve read plenty of older classics, many of which I’ve reviewed on my blog, but sadly very few recent books published within the last ten years or so. Here is everything I could find in my blog archives, although I might have missed one or two (and for the purposes of this list, I am referring to books that have been translated from their original language into English, not from English into other languages):

French to English:

Maurice Druon – The Accursed Kings series (translated by Humphrey Hare)
Alexandre Dumas – The Three Musketeers and sequels (translated by William Barrow); The Black Tulip (Franz Demmler); The Red Sphinx (Lawrence Ellsworth)
Victor Hugo – The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (translated by Isabel F. Hapgood); Les Miserables (Norman Denny)
Madame de Lafayette – The Princess of Cleves (unknown translator)
Robert Merle – The Brethren (translated by T Jefferson Kline)
George Sand – Mauprat (translated by Stanley Young)
Olivier Barde-Cabuçon – Casanova and the Faceless Woman (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie)
Leïla Slimani – The Country of Others (translated by Sam Taylor)

Italian to English:

Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose (translated by William Weaver)
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – The Leopard (translated by Archibald Colquhoun)

German to English:

Oliver Pötzsch – The Beggar King (translated by Lee Chadeayne)

Norwegian to English:

Lars Mytting – The Bell in the Lake (translated by Deborah Dawkin)
Sigrid Undset – Kristin Lavransdatter (translated by Tiina Nunnally)

Catalan to English:

Rafel Nadal Farreras – The Last Son’s Secret (translated by Mara Faye Lethem)

Spanish to English:

Isabel Allende – The Japanese Lover (translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson); A Long Petal of the Sea (Caistor and Hopkinson)

Russian to English:

Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago (translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari)
Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky)

Dutch to English:

Hella S Haasse – In a Dark Wood Wandering (translated by Lewis C Kaplan)
Simone van der Vlugt – Midnight Blue (translated by Jenny Watson)

~

Have you read any of these? Can you recommend any other historical fiction novels in translation, particularly anything recent?

There’s a Goodreads list here with 295 books and an interesting article here on the particular challenges of translating historical fiction.

~

My current historical reading:

I have just finished two novels, both long ones which have occupied most of my reading time for the last couple of weeks: Katharine Parr, the Sixth Queen by Alison Weir and Daughters of War by Dinah Jefferies. I’m also in the middle of an even longer non-fiction book, Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones, which is fascinating but has a lot of information to take in and absorb. As I wanted something lighter to read alongside this, I have just started The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters, the third book in her Amelia Peabody mystery series featuring a female Victorian Egyptologist. It will count towards the RIP XVI challenge. After this, I have review copies of two new September releases which I would like to read before the end of the month: The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien and A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick.

New to my historical TBR in the last few weeks:

The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret George, the sequel to The Confessions of Young Nero, which I read a few years ago, and Pour the Dark Wine by Deryn Lake, a novel about the Seymour family (the ebook was free on Amazon last week). Also, The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley and Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth, both via NetGalley and due to be published in 2022.

~

Have you read any good historical novels lately? And what are your thoughts on historical fiction in translation?

The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani

I’ve never read anything by Leïla Slimani until now, but her latest book, The Country of Others, sounded appealing to me – and as it’s translated from French, it means I can contribute to this year’s #WITMonth (Women in Translation Month).

Originally published as Le pays des autres and available now in an English translation by Sam Taylor, the novel is set in France and Morocco during the 1940s and 50s. Mathilde is a young woman from the Alsace region of France who, in the final years of World War II, falls in love with a Moroccan soldier, Amine, who has been fighting for the French. Bored with her life and looking for adventure, Mathilde marries Amine and moves with him to Meknes in Morocco where he has inherited some farmland. Here, as she struggles to settle into her new home, Mathilde begins to think she has made a huge mistake; this is certainly not the romantic, idyllic life she’d imagined herself leading. Loneliness, hostile neighbours, financial difficulties, an unhappy, abusive husband and political upheaval as Morocco tries to gain independence from France are just some of the problems Mathilde has to deal with.

Mathilde finds that the other French people in Meknes look down on her for marrying a Moroccan Muslim, while Amine’s Moroccan friends are suspicious of his white, European, Catholic wife. It’s not an easy situation for Amine either and he becomes torn between admiration for Mathilde and embarrassment at her refusal to behave the way he believes a woman should, which leads to some unpleasant scenes of domestic violence and cruelty. The novel is written from the perspectives of both Mathilde and Amine, as well as several more characters, all of whom are trying to find a place for themselves in this ‘country of others’: these include Aïcha, Mathilde and Amine’s daughter, who is aware that her mixed race makes her different from the other children at school; Selma, Amine’s teenage sister, a young woman who feels trapped in this male-dominated society and is desperate for freedom; and Omar, their brother, a fierce and violent man who has joined the fight for Moroccan independence and wants the French out of his country.

Although I did have a lot of sympathy for the circumstances in which most of the characters found themselves, many of them were such unlikeable people I found myself less moved by their stories than I would have expected. It didn’t help that the book is written in a strangely detached, passionless style, which I suppose is appropriate for the bleak and miserable events that are being described, but didn’t enable me to form any real emotional connection with any of the characters, not even Mathilde or Aïcha. Sometimes I almost felt that I was reading a work of non-fiction rather than a novel – and in fact, I discovered when I was halfway through the book that it’s the first in a planned trilogy drawing on Slimani’s own family history, which probably explains why it felt like a memoir.

Despite not particularly enjoying or even liking this book, I still found it interesting. I wasn’t really prepared for something so relentlessly depressing and completely without hope and I probably won’t continue with the other two books, but I do feel that I learned a lot from this one – about the challenges faced by interracial couples, the place of women in 1940s Moroccan society, and the political situation as the country moved towards independence. This was a worthwhile read, but I don’t think Slimani is an author for me.

Book 36/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

This Japanese murder mystery was originally published in 1987 and is now available from Pushkin Vertigo in an English translation by Ho-Ling Wong. Having recently read two other reissued Japanese classic mysteries, The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo and Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada, I jumped at the chance to read this one, especially when I saw comparisons with one of my favourite Agatha Christie novels, And Then There Were None.

After a brief prologue, the book begins with seven students, all members of their university Mystery Club, arriving on the lonely island of Tsunojima, where they are planning to spend the week. It’s the perfect location for a group of crime lovers because a series of unsolved murders took place there the year before, so the students are looking forward to exploring the island and using their skills as amateur detectives to investigate the mystery. Soon after their arrival, however, they discover that someone is planning to murder them one by one – but is the killer one of the seven or is someone else hiding on the island?

This is an interesting novel and a quick one to read; although it takes a while to get started, the pace rapidly picks up once the first murder takes place. The action switches between the island and the mainland, where Kawaminami, an ex-member of the Mystery Club, is carrying out some investigations of his own, having received a letter which leads him to question what really happened on Tsunojima Island the year before. The alternating narratives add some tension to the story as we wait to see whether Kawaminami will solve the mystery before everyone on the island is dead.

The similarities with And Then There Were None were obvious as soon as I started to read, but sadly this book doesn’t come close to the brilliance of the Christie novel – and the eventual solution and motive are quite different anyway. However, it’s clear that Yukito Ayatsuji must have been an admirer of Golden Age crime novels and he pays homage to them in various ways all the way through the book. The seven members of the Mystery Club have all taken the names of classic crime writers and are known as Ellery, Agatha, Leroux, Carr, Van Dine, Poe and Orczy, while Kawaminami’s nickname is Conan – or sometimes Doyle!

The characters themselves, though, never really come to life at all and feel interchangeable, with very little to differentiate one from another. This leads to a lack of emotional involvement and I found that I didn’t really care who was murdered or who the culprit was. I felt completely detached from what was happening and although I could appreciate the cleverness of the plot, it wasn’t a story that I could become fully absorbed in. To be fair, this seems to be typical of Japanese mystery novels in general, particularly the subgenre known as honkaku, of which this book is said to be a classic example. Honkaku books have been described as traditional plot-driven ‘puzzle mysteries’ with complex solutions and appear to be less concerned with character development.

Still, I found things to enjoy in this novel. The revelations at the end took me completely by surprise and, if I hadn’t had so many other books waiting to be read, I would have been tempted to go back and re-read at least the first few chapters to see how I could have missed the clues. And I loved the descriptions of the Decagon House, the building in which the students stay during their time on the island – a decagonal building with decagonal rooms, decagonal tables and even decagonal cups!

Thanks to Pushkin Vertigo for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki

Last November I took part in the Classics Club’s 25th Classics Spin and the book selected for me to read before the deadline, which is this Saturday, was The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Written in French and first published in 1804 and then again in a longer version in 1810, this very unusual novel is the work of the Polish author Count Jan Potocki who, it seems, led a very unusual life: born into an aristocratic family he spent some time with the Knights of Malta, he was apparently the first Polish person to fly in a hot air balloon, and he is said to have shot himself with a silver bullet after becoming convinced that he was a werewolf! I read a Penguin Classics edition of the book translated into English by Ian Maclean. I’m not sure how many other English translations exist, but I highly recommend this one; it’s very readable and makes the novel accessible to the modern reader without losing the feel of the period in which it is set.

I’m going to find it very difficult to give a summary of the plot, but I will do my best! It begins in 1739 with Alphonse van Worden, a young Walloon officer in the Spanish army, on his way to join his regiment in Madrid. Taking shelter in a seemingly abandoned inn in the mountains of the Sierra Morena, two beautiful women appear who introduce themselves as his cousins from Tunis, Emina and Zubeida. After listening to their story, Alphonse goes to bed for the night, only to wake up outside under a gallows, beside the bodies of two hanged men.

This is the first of many bizarre situations in which Alphonse finds himself over the next sixty-six days as he encounters a succession of strange and intriguing characters, including a gypsy chief, a cabbalist, a hermit and even the legendary Wandering Jew. Each of them has a story to tell – and often, another character within their story has another story of his or her own to tell too. Sometimes the stories-within-stories become several layers deep, to the point where one of the characters, the mathematician Velásquez, remarks:

“I do not know who is speaking and who is listening. Sometimes the Marques de Val Florida is telling the story of his life to his daughter, sometimes it is she who is relating it to the gypsy chief, who in turn is repeating it to us. It is a veritable labyrinth. I had always thought that novels and other works of that kind should be written in several columns like chronological tables.”

This probably sounds very confusing, but the novel is actually not as difficult to read as you might think. Although, like Velásquez, I often forgot who was speaking and who was listening, I found that in most cases it didn’t really matter all that much. I stopped trying to keep everything straight in my mind and just enjoyed each story for its own sake – and there’s a lot to enjoy! There are tales of hauntings and evil spirits, duels and disguises, magic and hidden treasures and, apart from one or two – the Wandering Jew’s story became a bit tedious, I thought – they are all very entertaining. Some are romantic, some are gothic and ghostly and others are funny; I was reminded at various times of Don Quixote and The Thousand and One Nights. The novel is conveniently divided into sixty-six chapters, one for each day of Alphonse’s journey (although some of the stories are split across several days), so if you wanted to you could probably read one chapter per day, although I was so gripped by it that I finished the book much more quickly than that!

Despite the sometimes random and meandering feel of the book, it does all come together at the end and most of the loose ends are tied up quite neatly. However, I thought this was one of the few weak points of the book – the conclusion of Alphonse’s story seemed too convenient and too abrupt and I think I would have preferred a different kind of ending. Still, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa was a lot of fun to read and just the sort of escapism I needed at the moment!

This is book 19/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

This beautifully written novel, translated from the original Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, is the first in a planned trilogy based around the legend of the Sister Bells. The bells commemorate conjoined twin sisters Gunhild and Halfrid Hekne, who lived in the remote village of Butangen and died within hours of each other. Their family donated the bells to the local church in memory of the twins and they are still hanging there, in the bell tower, in 1880 when the novel begins…

As the rest of the world heads towards the twentieth century, Butangen appears to be frozen in time, a place where life is still ruled by superstition and folklore, where people still believe in evil spirits and ill omens. When Kai Schweigaard, an ambitious young pastor, arrives in the village he despairs of ever bringing change to a population so resistant to progress and modern ways of thinking.

If only people had light, he thought. If there was a strong lamp in every home, which could illuminate faces and edifying books, I could banish these mad notions in a few years. But at sunset the village grew dark, and with it folk’s minds, and these unknown powers ruled until sunrise.

One of the ways in which Kai hopes to improve life in the village is by replacing the ancient 12th century stave church where a parishioner actually froze to death during Mass with a larger, warmer, more comfortable building. The old church, complete with its pagan carvings and twin bells, is to be dismantled and reconstructed in Dresden, and a young German architect – Gerhard Schönauer – has arrived to make drawings of the church before it is taken down. However, Kai and Gerhard face opposition not only from the people of Butangen, who are suspicious and resentful of anything new, but also from the Sister Bells themselves. The bells are said to have supernatural powers and to ring on their own when danger is approaching – and it seems that the bells don’t want to be removed.

As well as the two men, a large part of the story is also written from the perspective of twenty-year-old Astrid Hekne, who works as a maid in Kai Schweigaard’s household at the parsonage. Despite the differences in their social standing, Kai is considering making Astrid his wife, but complications arise when Astrid finds herself drawn to Gerhard Schönauer. Meanwhile, as a descendant of the twins Halfrid and Gunhild, Astrid feels a responsibility for the bells and decides she must do whatever it takes to prevent Gerhard from transporting them to Dresden with the rest of the church.

The Bell in the Lake is a wonderfully atmospheric novel thanks to Lars Mytting’s beautiful descriptions of the landscape around Butangen, particularly in winter with its frozen lakes and snow-covered hills and valleys, while the supernatural elements and the role of the Sister Bells legend give the story an eerie and mysterious feel. The sense of time is as strong as the sense of place and the characters feel like real 19th century people, rather than modern day people dropped into a random historical setting. However, I think the decision to have Astrid and the other villagers speak in a dialect which seems to be mainly Scottish is a bit strange. I suppose the translator had to find a way to differentiate between the speech of the local people and the outsiders (who speak in standard English), and using Scottish words makes sense because of the close ties with Norway, but I found it slightly distracting and kept forgetting that Astrid was actually Norwegian!

One of my favourite themes in fiction is the conflict between old ways of life and new, and in this novel we see how the inhabitants of Butangen are reluctant to move away from the traditions they have always followed and try to resist any kind of social, scientific or religious progress. Although Astrid has been brought up with the same beliefs, she has a more adventurous spirit than most of her neighbours and longs to see more of the world, which is what draws her to Gerhard. The demolition of the old church, which Gerhard has come to oversee, and the building of the new one is symbolic of all of this. If you’ve never seen a Norwegian stave church, by the way, I recommend googling them – they look amazing and it’s sad to think that there are so few of them left.

Having enjoyed The Bell in the Lake so much, I am looking forward to the other two books in the trilogy and hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next one!

Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

A three-fingered man. A room painted all in red. The eerie music of a Japanese koto. A katana – a sword – standing blade-first in the snow. These all form part of this classic murder mystery, originally published in Japanese in 1946 and now available from Pushkin Press in an English translation by Louise Heal Kawai.

The Honjin Murders is set in November 1937 in the village of Okamura, home to the Ichiyanagi family, whose ancestors once ran a honjin – an inn where noble travellers would stay during the Edo period. Those times are long gone, but the Ichiyanagis are still proud of their illustrious lineage. At the beginning of the novel, the various members of the family are gathering for the wedding of the eldest son and heir, Kenzo, to a young schoolteacher, Katsuko. Kenzo’s family are not very happy about the bride’s humble origins, but the marriage goes ahead and everyone retires to bed for the night. A few hours later, screams are heard from the newlyweds’ room and the pair are found inside stabbed to death.

With the doors locked and no fresh footprints in the snow surrounding the building, it seems that the perfect locked room murder has been committed. Luckily, Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo knows just the man who will be able to solve it: his friend, the private detective Kosuke Kindaichi. Ginzo sends for Kindaichi who arrives in the village looking dishevelled, unassuming and unimpressive (it’s difficult not to make comparisons with that other famously untidy detective, Columbo, although this book was published decades earlier) but appearances can be deceptive and it quickly becomes clear that Kindaichi has the sort of sharp mind and powers of deduction that are necessary to solve such a complex crime.

I won’t say any more about the plot of the novel or the mystery itself. I didn’t work out how the murder was committed or who the culprit was and I was happy just to watch the solution unfold – although like another Japanese mystery novel I read last year, Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada, I felt that there seemed to be more focus on puzzle solving and providing an ingenious technical explanation for the crime rather than on character and motivation. Maybe that is a common feature of Japanese crime fiction; I haven’t read enough of it yet to know.

What I particularly loved about this book was the style in which it was written, with the narrator (presumably meant to be Yokomizo himself) speaking directly to the reader and breaking off from the story now and then to discuss other classic mystery novels, especially of the locked room variety, and their similarities to the Honjin case:

The first that came to mind were Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room and Maurice Leblanc’s The Teeth of the Tiger; then there’s The Canary Murder Case and The Kennel Murder Case, both by S.S. Van Dine; and finally, Dickson Carr’s The Plague Court Murders…But this real-life case wasn’t quite like any of the above-mentioned. Maybe, just maybe, the killer had read a selection of stories like these, dissected all of the different devices used, then picked out the elements that he needed, constructing his own device. At least that’s one theory.

Yokomizo may have drawn inspiration from some of those earlier mysteries, but The Honjin Murders itself feels original and different, as well as being a very clever and entertaining novel. Although I hadn’t heard of Kosuke Kindaichi until I read this book, it seems that he appears in over seventy novels (one of which, The Inugami Curse, is also available in English from Pushkin Press). I will look forward to meeting him again!