Thursday, February 9, 2012

Meditative and moving

Reviewing Alice, five interlinked short stories by Judith Hermann 

German writer Judith Hermann examines the loss of a loved one through these five interlinked short narratives in Alice (The Clerkenwell Press). Her gaze is cool, detached, the writing style almost blandly obvious. The central character of Alice seems ephemeral: she appears in each story, death is linked to her through her relationship to each dying character: whether a friend’s husband is dying, or whether an old friend, a man in his seventies, is about to pass on.

We get to know and empathise with Alice through the layering of these stories, like burrowing down deep into the text, until, by the final story, the one whose loss recounts a man central to Alice’s existence, we feel we have, at last, become acquainted with the character who moves so centrally, so determinedly through these narratives. It’s gratifying, this slow peeling away at the onion skin of Alice; at last, there’s a sense of completion. Death is a character, a fact, early on, yet these stories are as much about loss as the central figure of Alice. 

The first of these stories, Misha, concerns the death of a young man, Misha, husband to Maja, father to his and Maja’s daughter, who remains unnamed. Alice is a sometime lover of Misha, and her relationship to Maja, the soon to be widow, is a rather awkward one.

Friendship would be too strong a term, acquaintanceship too distant. After all, acquaintances don’t take trains and temporarily relocate in order to help Maja care for her child in another city where Misha lies dying in a hospital. In fact, the uncertain boundaries of their relationship are never explained, but rather gently hinted at, a device Hermann uses often in this collection. 

Hermann’s gentle, delicate, almost watercolour gaze is reflected early on, the narrative reading at times like a dream. She eschews quotation marks for direct speech, which, for me, always adds a somewhat dreamy quality to a story.

Misha, the man, lies dying in a hospital not far from the flat where Alice, Maja and the child go through the motions of the days; death looms large, preparations both mental and emotional are being made. Yet this lends a rigidity and stiffness to the everyday actions of eating, drinking, visiting a dying man. Everything is not what it seems, although the mundanity of quotidian details belies this. 
When the threesome move to a bigger flat, they are greeted by their new landlords and Alice is immediately struck by the scars on the side of the man’s face: “It looked peculiar, but then everything seemed peculiar, had to be accepted for what it was. Alice carried her bag into the front garden and up the broken paving stones of the front path while the child on Maja’s arm kept saying, Rabbit. Rabbit. Rabbit. As if to calm everyone.” Through such almost throwaway lines Hermann indicates the strangeness of the wait for a young man’s death. Later on she thinks to herself, “astronauts. We’re just like astronauts, there’s no place to hold on to”. In this world of death and dying there are no rules, and nothing to grab on to. 

In the second story, Conrad, Alice travels with two friends from Germany to the Italian home of her elderly friends, Conrad and Lotte. She is travelling with her friend Anna (“she didn’t want to go anywhere without Anna”) and another male friend, simply called the Romanian. 

The setting is beautiful, the villa magical, the lake gorgeous with its cold water in the heat of an Italian summer, and yet, once more, death and uncertainty hover. When they arrive Lotte informs the trio that Conrad is a little unwell. A little unwell turns deadly, and once more a hospital becomes the centrifugal force for the action. While the trio enjoy their holiday, soaking up the sun, there’s the underlying awareness that a man is passing from this life. And yet, there’s little that is morbid or negative about this story, or any of the others that follow on. Death as a character, death as part of life, as Hermann appears to be saying. It lends an unsettling air to life, yet we carry on reading. Alice grows stronger, comes into focus as we read on, and our attention remains riveted on her; she is most certainly fully, and richly, alive as the narrative attests, and so while death is the link, it’s Alice’s life that leads us.

In the third, Richard, a friend is again in need. Richard, the husband of Margaret, dying of cancer in midlife, Margaret phoning, needing cigarettes. Through it all, the vibrant summer of Berlin swirls around Alice, introducing us to her live-in lover, Raymond. Once more we are being led further into Alice’s life. And further still in the fourth story, Malte, as Alice uncovers family history, finally researching the life of her unknown gay uncle Malte, who committed suicide. She meets Frederick, her uncle’s lover from the 1960s, now a man of seventy something, dignified in his sharing of secrets and reminisces. 

And then, the final story, Raymond. We witness Alice as an older woman now and her lover, Raymond, passes on. We’re deep into the depths of Alice’s character as she grieves. She matter-of-factly starts to get rid of his things, but grief catches you when you least expect it. She finds that “she couldn’t choose the memories; they came of their own accord; the memory of the garden, Raymond in the aviator jacket – soundless and yet part of it all”. When she discovers a dried piece of an almond horn, she crumples – small, everyday, innocuous objects have the power of memory, and remind one of loss, grief. This is a moving, meditative piece. 

This is the closest person in Alice’s life, as we move through the early, raw stages of her loss, “the days would never again be this clear and luminous; maybe she would have to learn how to find pleasure in it; any other way was impossible”.
First published in The Sunday Independent, January 22 2012

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Illuminating the poetry and horror of suburban life

Illuminating Love by Hazel Frankel

Illuminating Love (Jacana), by Joburg writer Hazel Frankel, is set in the heart of that city’s northern suburbs. The novel centres on Cally, a Jewish calligrapher, or soferet. Married to Jake, the mother of two children, Cally is engaged in making an anniversary present for her husband, as well as making a ketubah, an illuminated legal document that records a young couple’s wedding vows, for Aaron. In addition, she has discovered a number of poems written by her late Lithuanian grandmother, Judith. She’s transcribing them into calligraphy and reading each poem, which leads her deeper into Judith’s past, her pre-Holocaust life, her escape and her guilt at surviving, leaving, still living. 

These three strands interweave throughout the book: excavating the past through Judith’s words, making the illuminated document for the soon-to-be wed Aaron and his fiancée, while being reminded daily about the love and hope that goes alongside a new marriage, contrast vividly with Cally’s own life and marriage today. Because Cally is dead centre in the middle of an abusive marriage: a marriage once built on the same hope and love that Aaron’s was. But the years have served to erode: Jake remains haunted by his experience in the army, something he refuses to delve into or talk about, a subject that remains taboo within his household. And I use those words, his household, advisedly, as Jake rules his home with an increasingly authoritarian stance, a stance that Cally, still caught up in her love for him and yet increasingly fearful, finds herself unable to challenge. She tries – she goes away on holiday with just him, but Jake’s reactions and behaviour remain unpredictable: tenderness turns to violence all too often. Cally remains trapped. 

The only respite and refuge is her escape into calligraphy, a place where choosing the swirls and colours and a particular gold are consuming. Her platonic friendship with Aaron grows as the illuminated ketubah takes shape – yet this is further cause for Jake’s anger. Author Frankel is herself a calligrapher – and the book is rich in authentic detail in the subject – which makes for fascinating, and yes, illuminating reading. 

But while Cally’s crumbling, abusive marriage forms one heart of this richly readable novel, the other is devoted to Judith’s poems, with each chapter ending on a poem, which adds the third strand to this narrative. 

There’s a line early on which foreshadows what is to come:  “Until I started to learn about Judith, I had thought that history belonged to strangers. Now I know that it is also the personal experience of my family.” And through her past, Cally comes to some kind of understanding. The poems are yet another delight of this book, serving to illuminate (there’s that word again) a lost world, a lost generation, bringing it to life through poetry that’s simple, and yet richly detailed and vivid. 

Judith writes of Shabbos rituals, of love, of everyday domestic details, of the pain of leaving your home and country, and relief, and the guilt that follows survivors around. On love: “We do not speak of parting/but it sits between us. We do not speak of love, only/of the deer as it hesitates, one foot in the air, /waiting for the sun’s touch on the crisp snow./ We do not speak /of the train at the station,/ you leaving, me waving you on.”
On the dislocation of finding yourself in another country: “I breathed a world/ that knew mushrooms,/ field, forest; …/children sticky with blackberries,/ leapt into stars;/ here, I cannot find/ the path along my tongue.”

As Cally journeys further into her grandmother’s past, the present continues, and life unravels as Jake grows both more distant and violent. Things cannot remain as they are and the dénouement is both unexpected and surprising. There have been hints throughout of Jake’s inability to process his own past in the army, but they remain hints right up until the end, which makes for an awkward ending that, as a reader, you don’t quite feel prepared for, it’s all too much of a surprise, and I wish Frankel had prepared the groundwork on this a little earlier.
Plus, the ending and wrap-up feels a little too rushed and pat, and again, a vague sense of dissatisfaction results. We’re swept along, feeling empathy towards the likeable Cally, interested in her plight, while shuddering with revulsion at Jake’s increasingly unhinged personality. And while Jake is far from being a one-dimensional character, there remains scant exploration of the forces that shaped him. 

At other times, I felt the editing could have been tighter. A chapter on a holiday in Cape Town reads more like a journal entry, with very little advancing the course of the story, and could have been dispensed with in a few lines in perhaps another chapter. 

However, despite these criticisms, this remains a readable, gripping novel, filled with remarkable detail, and likeable, empathetic characters that ring true. Frankel, an EU finalist with her first novel, Counting Sleeping Beauties, moves the narrative along effortlessly and beautifully. The poetry adds to the charm, of course, and is a delightful, memorable touch to the story. Highly recommended.  

To read more of Judith’s poetry, see excerpts from the book at: 

First published in The Sunday Independent, January 22 2012 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Charm of the Bushveld

The journey begins with a propeller-driven De Havilland, the body of the plane is narrow, just two seats on either side of the aisle. We’re making our way to Simbavati Game Lodge, situated within the Timbavati Private Game Reserve near the Kruger Park. The engines throttle into life, the plane takes off, the noise deafening, drowning out all conversation till we reach cruising altitude. I feel like I’ve gone back in time, to the 1940s....Read more here