Tag Archives: Vintage

Some Tough Reading

I have chosen to read some pretty tough books recently. They all concern the large-scale political events of the 20th and 21st centuries, and all concern wilful and intentional policy of inhumane treatment towards others. Depressing indeed!

The books refer to Russia in the time of Stalin’s great purges, Paris and Auschwitz in the 1940s, China from the 1930s through to Tiananmen Square and the plight of refugees in Europe today. Books take you to places you have never been, but can profoundly depress you while you are there. What follows is a kind of inhumanity Mash-up.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I put off reading this novel, and then I had to restart it. It was difficult to read. With brilliant story-telling gifts Madeleine Thien retells the history of China through its effects on several generations of one family and their friends. At the centre of her narrative is Sparrow, a Chinese composer, and Lai his friend and a brilliant concert pianist. But the story stretches back from the wanderings of Sparrow’s mother in the 1930s and forward from the starting point of the novel when Sparrow’s daughter meets Kai’s daughter in Toronto. The fathers have both died.

What links them through this terrible period of Chinese history is music and literature in the face of oppression and mob enforce repression.. Music and literature forge family loyalties, even in the face of violent opposition to Western culture, or any artistic expression.

The stories of the family members over time merge, as they wander off, surface again in distant provinces, often in exile or in terrible prison camps. They suffer enforced re-education, the mob mentality of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, the demonstrations and repression of Tiananmen Square. The willingness of the people to try to do as bidden in order to make China better is heartrending in the face of so much brutality. One asks: and today?

It’s a captivating book and one that I have frequently seen read on train journeys.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) Published by Granta 473pp

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Fiction prize 2017

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

Endpaper for Into The Whirlwind

This book is a memoir, beginning with an account of the author’s arrest in 1937, accused of betraying the Revolution. Sentenced to 10 years in solitary, she endures two in the company of Julia before being sent on to a labour camp in East Russia.

From the moment she is sentenced she has no knowledge of her husband, or of their children (seeing only one of her sons in later life). It’s a grim story, beginning with the Kafka-esque accusations that began the great purge, the cult of personality. The conditions under which the first three years of her sentence are served are so appalling both in isolation and in the work camp, that one wonders anyone survived. At each stage the women support each other, learn how to deal with their warders and those who control their lives. This volume (but not her imprisonment) ends in 1940, and she continued her memoirs in another volume, up to the point of her rehabilitation in the 1950s.

The personal cost of Stalin’s monstrous campaign to ensure his own rule is vividly revealed. Remaining human was a constant struggle, to do with clothes, footwear, keeping warm, eating and acts of generosity towards others.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967) Published by Persephone Books 344pp

Translated from the Russian by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

While this book is a story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) it is also a depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. It focuses on the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. It leaves us to imagine what happened to their menfolk, friends, children and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

I included my reflections on this book in a post about visiting Auschwitz, Bookword in Poland.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Published by Vintage 374pp

And just in case you think that this kind of inhumanity doesn’t happen any more in Europe, I refer you to the recent post reviewing a novel about refugees in Germany: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

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Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen

Eva Trout was Elizabeth Bowen’s last novel, published in 1969. It is a daring and extravagant novel. The main character, Eva, is not a very sympathetic one and although her story has great comic scenes, she behaves in a way that the author refuses to judge. The reader is left with work to do, and I admire Elizabeth Bowen for that.

 

The Story

At the start of the novel Eva Trout is the heiress to a huge fortune, her parents both being dead. She is still the responsibility of her guardian, Constantine, her father’s former lover. She has endured a motherless and peripatetic childhood, and two boarding schools. As she approaches the birthday on which she will inherit she is living with her former teacher Izzy Arble and her husband, and has befriended the family at the vicarage, the Danceys. This is how Mrs Dancey sees Eva, who was very tall, in the opening chapter.

The giantess, by now, was alone also: some way along the edge of the water she had come to a stop – shoulders braced, hands interlocking behind her, feet in the costly, slovenly lambskin bootees planted apart. Back fell her cap of jaggedly cut hair from her raised profile, showing the still adolescent heaviness of the jawline. (12)

Mrs Dancey’s observations show us a character not interested in how she appears to other people, and one who has not studied how to look feminine. It emerges that Eva has few social skills, little awareness of what others think or feel and so creates chaos around her. Her guardian and Izzy consult about their difficult charge. Eva disappears, as she does frequently in the novel. As soon as she comes into her money she runs away to Broadstairs, Kent, to a broken down house by the sea. She is found by Eric Arble, who has a bit of a thing for her, and by Constantine. So she disappears again, announcing that she is pregnant.

In Chicago she meets some old school friends and acquires a baby illegally. Returning to London after 5 years she sets off another chain of events for the Arbles, the Danceys and Constantine, whose lives have all changed while she was away. The baby Jeremy, is now growing up both deaf and mute. She escapes to France in search of treatment for him.

As her relationship blossoms with Henry Dancey, the vicar’s son, she returns to London and they stagger towards a decision to marry. The final scene assembles all Eva’s circle at Victoria Station as the couple prepare to depart for a wedding on the continent. But a shot is fired …

Adventurousness of the novel

There are many daring features of Eva Trout. In the first place, the heroine is unusual and behaves in a way that challenges the other characters and the reader. Her name is a little off-putting, suggesting fishy features. However, she is not unpleasant, simply unaware. This provides comic possibilities, as when she interacts with Mr Denge, who manages the property in Broadstairs. He is out of his depth in dealing with her, and is frankly afraid of her and her wealth. In contrast, while Jeremy is clearly important to her, she has no dilemmas that we are told of in acquiring him illegally, and is rather cavalier in her attempts to bring him up.

The plot itself is unusual. The events become more and more extravagant, beginning with a claim of an engagement, phantom, and culminating in the shooting on the final page. The narrative makes no attempt to explain, or to explore the inner lives of the characters. We learn about their actions, and surmise some motivations, from their conversations and letters. The action is revealed in scenes that are rich in description and sensual perceptions.

The narration is largely sequential, although Eva’s time at the two schools is revealed in an extended flashback. While it is mainly sequential it leaps forward from time to time, and the reader must find what has happened to the characters in the intervening years or months from the dialogue.

Much of the plot and delight of this novel comes through the dialogue. In this extract Eva is talking to a priest, Father Clavering-Haight. He is trying to put her right but she remains innocent while not unravelling the situation. Having discussed her father he asks whether she resents anyone else.

‘Yes, I resent my teacher.’

‘We’re not speaking of the subsequent Mrs Arble?’

‘Then you do know.’

That’s a business, apparently, that nobody can make head or tail of. What – exactly – took place?’

‘She abandoned me. She betrayed me.’

‘Had you a Sapphic relationship?’

‘What?’

‘Did you exchange embraces of any kind?’

‘No. She was always in a hurry.’

‘Good,’ he said, ticking that one off. (184)

Elizabeth Bowen is famous for her ‘prickly sentences, resisting conventional word order’. This too can slow the reader and force her or him to consider the meaning contained and what is revealed by the prickliness. The description is from Tessa Hadley who wrote the introduction to the Vintage edition.

Success of Eva Trout

Elizabeth Bowen’s style of writing, the absence of explanations force the reader to ask questions: she says, look at this unusual person, and these people and think about what they are doing and why, how they are reacting to each other and why, and watch how this unfolds. What forms a person’s life, she asks. Izzy, the teacher, has an interesting conversation about the possible effects of nature and nurture. Chance seems to play a very big part as well, according to the author. Perhaps that is what we are to make of the novel’s full title: Eva Trout or Changing Scenes.

I liked the audacity of this book, the challenge it presents to the reader, and recommend it as I do all her novels that I have reviewed so far on Bookword. It was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1969 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize the following year. It is a shame that it has rather slipped the public consciousness since then.

 

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in 1969. I used the Vintage edition of 1999. 268 pp

Related posts

Cosy Books blogger reported that Eva Trout had swept her away, like previous novels by Elizabeth Bowen.

And reviewed on this blog:

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen in February 2013

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen, her first novel, in May 2013

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen in September 2013

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen in June 2014

Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen in June 2016

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Bookword in Iceland

Reading and travelling are both experiences of visiting new worlds. I like combining them and set about finding bookish connections when I’m on the move. I went to Iceland in February. Not my idea, but my brother is celebrating what people call a ‘big birthday’ and I said I would go with him. He hoped to see the Northern Lights. I’m up for such things, especially when I get to visit a new place. Here are some bookish reflections on my brief time in Iceland.

Strangers in Iceland

In 2009 Sarah Moss went to live in Iceland with her partner and children. She had a contract for a year with the University of Reykjavik. 2009 was the year following Kreppa, the Icelandic term for the financial crash. Kreppa ended the years of silly and false money-making in Iceland. People were suffering.

Sarah Moss is a novelist, author of Night Waking (2011) and The Tidal Zone (2016), both excellent novels published by Granta. The book she wrote about her time in Iceland is categorized as ‘travel’. It is not like any travel book I have read. It is more of a what-I-noticed-when-we-lived-in-Iceland-for-a-year kind of book. It is called Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland. I recommend it even if you are not planning a visit.

From Names for the Sea I got the impression that Icelandic people may look and behave like other Western people, but actually they are very different. Icelandic people have sense of themselves as distinct, and what it means to be Icelandic, and a pride in their country and culture. They like the perception that theirs is the safest country in the world (1.1 murders a year are committed on average. Sadly, the week before we visited, Birna, a young girl was murdered. There were searches and a vigil and a man from Greenland has been arrested.)

Our sense of Iceland, as tourists, was that we should not be stressed. They had everything covered. Coaches and minibuses crisscrossed Reykjavik, fetching tourists from hotels and taking them on tours, information always provided about the arrangements. Even when our minibus broke down on the way back to the airport, a substitute was quickly fetched, and we proceeded with very little problem, delay or stress.

During her residence Sarah Moss found food banks, half finished blocks of flats and a poor exchange rate. We did not see the first two, but it was not cheap if you kept calculating the cost of things in £££s.

‘Icelanders knit everywhere,’ said Sarah Moss (281). The only person I saw knitting was a woman in the wool shop I visited, who demonstrated the way in which they hold their needles and wool. Icelandic sweaters and other necessary warm garments are widely available. I bought some yarn – how could I not?

I also learned from Sarah Moss that Icelanders take a coat with them all year round. In February this was not really in doubt. But in Reykjavik, we had rain and wind and the worst combination of these I have experienced this winter. But the temperature during the day never dropped below freezing. Out of the city it was another story.

Independent People

And now I am wading through Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People. It’s a long story (more than 500 pages), an epic, about Bjartur a farmer in the desolate countryside, who is determined to become independent, who sees independence as the ultimate goal of all his labours. And labour he does, against the elements, bad fortune, hapless neighbours, the death of his first wife and a determined child. And Bjartur pays the price for his stubbornness.

Set in the early twentieth century, but describing life as it had been lived for many centuries, Laxness spares no detail of the crofters’ lives. Meetings of the men, coffee, rounding up sheep, falling into the Glacier River, the governance, relationships with neighbours … it’s all here. Especially the snow and the coffee.

Pingvellar National Park

What, I wondered, is the value of independence in an environment where cooperation and collaboration are clearly more likely to achieve desired outcomes?

Halldor Laxness, 1906 – 1998, published his novel in 1934-5. He produced other novels and translations, and wrote for the theatre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

Halldor Laxness 1955

Other bookish things

I need to reconnect with the Icelandic Sagas. The shops offered a hefty and attractive Penguin edition, but it seemed crazy to add such an object to our suitcase and to pay the Icelandic price. Iceland was only settled from 870. People had lived there before, but not successfully. The inhospitable landscape and climate would put off most folks. This is the stuff of good stories.

One of the many, many tours offered to tourists was The Game of Thrones Tour. We swam in the Blue Lagoon instead.

Our hotel had a bookshelf for guests. Prominent in the collection was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, one of President Obama’s recommendations, and one of mine.

I’m not a fan of Nordic-noir, or whatever genre in which you would include Icelandic thrillers. There are plenty.

Go to Iceland! It’s another country; they do things differently there.

Book details

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (2012) Granta 358pp

Independent People by Halldor Laxness (1934-5). Translated from the Icelandic by James Anderson Thompson and first published in 1946, in translation. Available in the Vintage edition. 544pp

And go to TripFiction’s website to find other location-based fiction.

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Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Older people, it is assumed, live lives defined by approaching death. And older women are often portrayed as eccentric and difficult. I watched the film of Alan Bennett’s book The Lady in a Van while I was reading Ghost Light. At the opening of the novel Molly Allgood appears to have a lot in common with Miss Shepherd, Maggie Smith’s character in the film.

However, Molly is 67, and very much concerned with the present, with living her life, and with pondering the life she once lived. While being almost penniless, grateful for some charity, she is not eccentric. She still finds occasional work as an actor. She started her career in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and was engaged to marry the playwright John Millington Synge. He died of Hodgkin’s Disease aged 37 in 1909. Molly was 24. She lived on for four decades.

This is the 25th in the series of reviews of older women in fiction. For others you can see the page ‘about the older women in fiction series’.

Molly Allgood

The older Molly in 1952 was 67 and living in London. London is in pretty bad shape, still full of bombsites, poverty and lodging houses. Molly is not in good health either. She has difficulty scraping together the means to live, and in the first scenes she evades a police officer who warns her against an old Irish vagrant who has been begging. She returns some empty bottles for the deposit and begs a loan and is given free food by those who look out for others.

Molly addresses herself in this self-description.

But you’re no beauty yourself any more. Be honest – the years aren’t kind. And you feel you have submerged into fretfulness with age, hear yourself murmuring of your anxieties with the troubled watchfulness of a child in an unfathomable world. And your old woman’s voice – how did that happen? Your wheezing, brittle croakiness, distracted, muted, and you gossiping to the teacups for company. There was a day many years ago in Connemara or Kerry, when you happened upon an old rowboat that had been dumped in a bog. Crossbench crushed and buckled, rotting tiller wrenched askew, it had sunk to its oarlocks in the oozing, black peat. Often, of late, when you become aware of your voice, the image has appeared in your thoughts. (59-60)

I love the Irish rhythms of Joseph O’Connor’s writing, especially when he is writing in Molly’s voice. And I like the way her references are from her past, from her home country, strong despite her travels and residence in America and London.

After her marriage she was known as Maire O’Neill, and she is sometimes referred to in this way in Ghost Light. She bemoans the lack of parts for older women actors.

But for a woman, once she has offended by outliving the age of childbirth, the roles disappear as honeybees in winter. A jealous auld hag. An irrepressible washerwoman. Some bitch to be bested in pantomime. (30)

It sometimes feels that these are the roles assigned to all older women in life, not just actors. I note again the film of The Lady in the Van. And in some ways Molly is pathetic, or at least draws out sympathy, like when she is warned by the policeman, or in the BBC studio when her health takes a turn for the worse. As the novel progresses we learn that she is not a person to whom life has been generous.

Young Molly

John Millington Synge

In the first decade of the 20th century, in Dublin, amid the growing nationalism of the Irish, Molly met John Millington Synge at the Abbey Theatre. Both Molly and her sister Sara were struggling to escape their impoverished Catholic childhoods and to make something of themselves on the stage. Synge was an esteemed Protestant playwright, favoured by Yeats and Lady Gregory.

Molly in 1912

There were so many contrasts between them: religion, age, health, profession, but they fell in love. When she found out about it, his mother objected to their relationship. Much of their courtship was spent walking out at the weekends in places where they were not known. They steal a month away in Wicklow. He becomes notorious as the author of The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots when it was first staged in 1907.

The story as fiction

Joseph O’Connor makes it clear that this is a work of fiction. For example, there are no surviving letters between the couple to draw on, probably no holiday in Wicklow. But the settings are authentic, and the characters of the novel are quite believable too.

The novel has an interesting structure, one that takes care to indicate that Molly did not end up as this lonely old woman because of her affair with Synge. Nor was the affair with Synge the only thing in her life as she lived for 43 years after his death – there was her acting career, her rivalry with her sister who went to Hollywood, a marriage, a son and a daughter.

Sara Allgood and Kerrigan in Playboy in 1911

The novel moves back and forth between young and old Molly, and is presented in a number of perspectives. At times Molly addresses herself, as in the extracts above. At other times we have a play script, a letter and the tenses are carefully handled, close to Molly in the present tense, using the past tense for more distance.

It is beautifully written, and its structure reflects life experienced not as a linear process, but revisiting episodes time and again.

Joseph O’Connor at Literaturhaus Cologne 2015. Hpschaefer www.reserv-art.de

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor. Published by Vintage, 2010. 246pp

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Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

This is a dark book, not so much frightening as – well, dark. Although in her 20s the narrator, Eileen, appears to be obsessed in the ways that adolescents can be: bodily functions, secret passions, easily influenced, hard exterior. She does not have much going in her favour in the novel: a dreary job, a dead mother, a drunken father. And she lives in a town so dull that she calls it X-ville.

It’s a book that has done very well in the literary awards and accolades:

  • Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016
  • Shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize 2016
  • Shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger Award 2016
  • Hemmingway Foundation/PEN award.
  • Selected as a Book of the Year 2016 in The Times, Observer and Daily Telegraph

The Story

The story is located in coastal New England, near Boston, in 1964 at Christmas time. The narrator is reflecting on events 50 years before. Eileen is introduced to us as a rather non-descript kind of young woman, with few memorable or redeeming features.

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I look like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange, young and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out of the window. (1)

All readers know that appearances can deceive.

Eileen works in an admin job in the local prison for young offenders. She has no friends, no interests except for her at-a-distance obsession with the guard Randy. She lives with her father, a drunk and an ex-policeman who is a liability to his daughter and his neighbours. Neither of them make any effort to keep the house clean or pay attention to what they eat. Eileen has taken to keeping his shoes in the trunk of her car so that he will not wander out and terrorise the neighbours. A local policeman takes her father’s service pistol off him and gives it to Eileen for safe keeping. Her father ignores Eileen, or makes abusive comments to her. She considers killing him, much as she wonders about being saved by Randy.

Then just before Christmas Rebecca arrives at the prison to take up an education job. It is clear to the reader that this young woman is unsuitable for the post, but Eileen is immediately in awe of her. Her sophisticated taste in dress is entirely inappropriate. The young women go out drinking together and Rebecca, more knowledgeable about the world, abandons Eileen to the attentions of a barman. Rebecca shows too close an interest in one of the boys in the prison.

When Rebecca invites Eileen around to her house for a Christmas Eve drink, Eileen anticipates an exotic evening in tasteful surroundings. Many things are unexpected in this book, but the reader is not surprised that the evening turns out to be very different, critical in Eileen’s young life, even if the events themselves are surprising.

Some themes in Eileen

Patricide by badly fathered children threads its way through this novel. The children in the prison, Eileen herself, and perhaps Rebecca all appear very damaged by poor parenting. Eileen is well on the way to becoming as much of a drunk as her father. She has learned to keep what she calls her death mask face for the outside world.

Another theme is the allure of the other for deprived people, especially deprived young people, and especially if they live in a dull city like X-ville. The unknown is the attraction of Randy for Eileen at the outset of the novel, and of Rebecca as it proceeds. We pick up clues that Eileen managed to create a life for herself, albeit not a very happy one, after leaving X-ville.

And death and physical danger and unsettling details lurk in every scene. At one point you learn that Eileen’s mother died while her daughter slept beside her. We find that Eileen dresses in her mother’s clothes, which are mostly too big for her. She drives a car that is in danger of killing the occupants from a leaking exhaust. Her physical fixations are hardly less than disgusting. The state of the house she shares with her father is no less revolting.

The narrator is aware of some of her own shortcomings.

There was a reason I worked at the prison, after all. I wasn’t exactly a pleasant person. I thought I would have preferred to be a teller in a bank, but no bank would have taken me. For the best, I suppose. I doubt it would have been long before I stole from the till. Prison was a safe place for me to work. (174)

And in case you think that there is no connection between Eileen’s story and your own, she corrects you.

I don’t know where we went wrong in my family. We weren’t terrible people, no worse than any of you. I suppose it’s the luck of the draw, where we end up, what happens. (256)

The novel is framed as a reflection from 50 years later. Occasionally the narrator addresses the reader, as in the quotation above. But mostly she just reminds you that this is a memory.

by Larry D Moore

Ottessa Moshfegh at the 2015 Texas Book Festival, photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0. via Wikicommons

In interviews Ottessa Moshfegh has made it clear that she was trying ‘to push the narrative to awkward extremes’. She was thinking about difficult questions: Can we ever escape the identity we’re born into? What does it mean to be free? Does altruism exist? As a result this novel is always surprising, always revulsion-inducing, but in the end it is hard to know who was the victim and who the wrong doer. That’s life. Happy New Year!

PS Thank you Eileen for the loan of the book.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2016) Vintage 260pp

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The Door by Magda Szabo

The novel begins with the door, the narrator facing it in a dream. She is struggling to turn the lock. The door will not give way to her efforts and no one will come to help for although she is shouting she has lost the power of speech. This is a recurring nightmare from which the narrator, who is a writer, is wakened by her own screaming.

It’s a powerful opening scene, and it sets up the privacy and secrecy of the woman who lives behind the door, closed to the efforts of the narrator to create closer ties. The relationship of the two women lasted twenty years, was difficult and is the subject of The Door, a Hungarian novel.

272 The Door

This is the 22nd post in the Older Women in Fiction Series on this blog. Thank you Robin Dawson for the suggestion. It was chosen because August is Women in Translation month. The Door was translated by Len Rix.

The Story

Emerence came to clean for the writer who had moved with her husband into a bigger Budapest apartment. Having been disapproved of for some time, during the Stalinist era, the writer is now more successful and needs time and space for her work. She needs a cleaner and Emerence has been recommended. Emerence makes it clear that she interviews the couple not vice versa. Later she takes over their dog as well. For twenty years Emerence cleans for the couple and becomes a major presence in their lives. It is in an uneasy relationship, especially at first as Emerence dictated the terms of her employment.

The story is told in a series of scenes, each one illustrating how Emerence keeps the narrator at a distance, or indeed turns her back on her if she feels affronted. They fall out over Emerence’s present of a plaster dog. She will never accept a present from the narrator. The narrator asks her to return, even if the dog must stay. And Emerence does return to work for them, and she hurls the dog to the floor, lesson learned. In this uneasy way, gradually the writer and the older woman develop affection, although it does not prevent the writer from getting things wrong. The climax comes when Emerence falls ill and needs assistance but will not unlock her door. What are the ‘lady writer’ and the community to do?

272 NY The Door

The old woman

Emerence had a hard childhood, born into a rural area and rejected by her family and her lover, who also stole her savings. She came to Budapest with no ties, in the war, and it emerges that she helped other people survive, especially a Jewish family. She has done numerous favours for many people so that her nephew, the Lieutenant Colonel of the police and many others all look out for her interests and protect her from the worst of life in its intrusions, especially officialdom. Emerence allows no one into her house, except the narrator just once. She has immense pride, and immense strength.

She was tall, big-boned, powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and she radiated strength like a Valkyrie. Even the scarf on her head seemed to jut forward like a warrior’s helmet. (6)

At the end of The Door Emerence falls ill and is confined to her house. Her absence reveals that the community has come to rely upon her. The narrator has to ask the local priest to provide a church funeral, for the benefit of the local community. He opposes the request because of her well-known and rigid opposition to the church.

‘She’s not asking for it,’ I replied. ‘I am. And so is every well-disposed person. It is appropriate, as a form of homage. She may have heaped expletives on the Church as institution, but I’ve known few devout believers who were as good Christians as this old woman. … This woman wasn’t one to practice Christianity in church between nine and ten on Sunday mornings, but she had lived by it all her life, in her own neighbourhood, with a pure love of humanity such as you find in the Bible, and if he didn’t believe that he must be blind, because he’d seen enough of it himself.’ (250-1)

And after death her influence lives on, she’s still solving problems for other people.

The Themes

The Door isn’t so much about the old woman as about the relationship between the narrator and Emerence. They reflect many of the themes, which are set up in tension or as opposites. Emerence stands firm for the value of manual labour, while the narrator is a writer, an intellectual. Emerence does favours for the whole community, keeps the streets clear of snow, cleans their houses, services the block of flats for which she is curator. Her selflessness means that she accepts no favours, no presents. The lady writer, on the other hand, thinks of herself and her own needs constantly, as if her sensibility were especially fragile. The writer’s Catholicism is important to her, but Emerence wants nothing to do with the Church and its rituals. And so on.

It is clear that the best of life is in the combination of these qualities, labour with intellectualism; selflessness and selfishness; faith and scepticism; privacy and public approval.

Magda Szabo

272 Szabo, Magda

The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. According to sources on the internet, the novel draws upon her own life. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Ali Smith observed, I am not sure where, that Emerence was Hungary, a notion that came to me during my reading of the novel.

 

 

The Door by Magda Szabo, first published in 1987. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in 2005. 262 pp.

Winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2006.

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Related Posts

Two reviews:

Claire Messud in the New York Times in February 2015, described the novel as a masterpiece and mesmerising and suggested it changed her way of understanding the world.

Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker in April 2016, said ‘to read it is to feel turned inside out’, a ‘bone-shaking book’.

Two most recent posts in Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine in April 2016

Olive Ketteridge by Elizabeth Strout in June 2016

 

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More bookish things in the Cevennes

At the end of May I went walking in the Cevennes region of France. The area’s most famous literary connection is with Modestine, the donkey. The previous post looked at Robert Louis Stevenson and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Now I consider three other books connected with the area.

Le Rozier

  1. Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead

The Cevennes lies in the southern part of le massif central. Northeast of Robert Louis Stevenson’s route lies the large plateau Viverais-Lignon where the villages, farms and forests are frequently cut off in winter and require effort to reach at other times of year. It is high, remote and isolated. It also has clean, restorative air and, long before the Second World War, had been a place for the French to improve their health during the summer months, especially children.

257 VofS cover

During the time of Vichy government and the occupation of France hundreds, perhaps thousands of people fled from the German occupiers to the plateau. First it was the Spanish refugees from the Civil War in Spain; then the foreign Jewish families who had escaped to France and needed to hide from the occupying German forces when France was defeated; then it was the French Jewish families, who had been assured of the protection of the Vichy government and then betrayed; later on, the Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO) introduced national service for the French to work in Germany and many people went into hiding to avoid the STO; and the Maquis, the local resistance movement also found cover on the plateau. Most of these people survived the war.

La Causse Mejean

The book tells the reader what happened, but also asks the question, what was it about the people of the plateau that enabled them to successfully defy the demands of the occupiers and to shelter these fugatives?

The geography of the plateau made it excellent for hiding.

The bravery of individuals and the determination of the organisations that hid those in danger, especially the Jewish children, was another feature.

There was a history of Protestant resistance, stretching back to the bloody wars of religion in the 18th Century, described in some detail by Robert Louis Stevenson in his book of 1879. Some of the pastors were pacifists, all dedicated to assistance. Two sects, offshoots of Plymouth Brethren, were present on the plateau, austere and with an entrenched privacy and resistance to asking questions. Even some of the local police turned a blind eye to the hidden children.

It’s an important story, but was not an easy book to write, Caroline Moorehead tells us in an article Caroline Moorehead on Village of Secrets: ‘I received warnings’. The warnings came from a group who wished to preserve the story of the heroism of a single man, whereas she celebrates the efforts and commitment of the whole community. It was not a story of a single hero. There was no monopoly on goodness, she explains.

And as a footnote, Albert Camus spent two winters on the plateau, writing La Peste.

Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France. Caroline Moorehead (2014) published by Vintage. 374 pp. Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

  1. Trespass by Rose Tremain

257 Trespass cover

This novel was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize in 2011. I read it when it was published and these comments are from my notes.

This was quite an easy read, but the story felt a little unresolved. It concerns disputed property in the south of France, and a vivid family past. A parallel story concerns a gay English woman who writes and gardens in the same area, whose brother wishes to buy a property in the area to recover his sense of self. Their stories collide badly, and little resolution is made, except by the perpetrator of the murder, who is not apprehended. This did not leave me with a sense of calm, a story ended. On the one hand satisfying revenge is had, on the other people have been plunged into grief and trauma as a result.

It’s quite a short novel, and told from a number of perspectives. Resentments, built up over long lives, are well portrayed, but it is hard to know whose story this is, and why one should care. Ultimately it feels like the rich middle class English causing rifts and damage in their new colonies.

Trespass by Rose Tremain, published by Penguin in 2011. 384pp.

Aver Amand

  1. Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

257 Verne_-_Voyage_au_centre_de_la_Terre.djvu

And then there was Jules Verne, greeting us in the limestone caves of Aven Armand. The tour of the caves used the device of his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth to introduce us to the fantastical stalagmites and stalactites. It was slightly dodgy as Jules Verne wrote his book before the caves were found. But the idea of great scientific discoveries being made in the 19th Century, the excitement at the new knowledge, especially about the age and development of the earth, was a point being made. Did you know that it takes a century for the stalagmites to grow 1 cm? The literary connection gave me an excuse to include a photo

257 Jules Verne

Relevant posts and websites

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes (June 2016) on this blog.

Trip Fiction for advice on fiction related to your journeys.

Reading Guide for Trespass by Rose Tremain.

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Vertigo by WG Sebald

Vertigo is that nauseous feeling induced by losing balance or from being at a height. Everything appears to be unsettled and to whirl around. It is hard to keep the scene in front of you coherent as it moves and eludes perception.

The book’s title is perfect; it is a work that teeters at the edge of uncertainty … Sebald’s journey into himself and his past is compelling, puzzling, unique. [Erica Wagner in the Times, quoted by Stephen Moss, see below.]

226 Vertigo

Structure and other features

The question of genre is frequently raised about Sebald’s work. Vertigo is a novel and a memoir and a travel book and a disquisition on European culture. It is organised into four parts, describing the travels of Beyle (better known to us by his pen name: Stendhal), WG Sebald, Dr K (aka Kafka) and WG Sebald again. They travel through Europe, mostly on railways, occasionally by foot. Connections between the four sections are not obvious.

Beyle, Sebald and Dr K share hypersensitivity. The effect of this is that their journeys and the narration of their travels can turn in a moment, and take the reader down a side track, a digression. The digression quickly becomes the topic of the next few pages. And the original narrative line is left behind. Much like a railway journey really. Impossible to read for some, but I get seduced, like looking out of a railway carriage at the scenery.

As with his other novels, the text contains many grainy pictures. Some of them appear to have no connection with the text, others appear to illustrate it. Some might have given Sebald ideas about what to include: for example the grusome Drs Ringger and Pesavento on pages 118 and 119. There is a sense that some may be frauds, stand-ins, and some real, like memory, or the randomness of life from which we try to make sense. Nothing is clear.

Themes

Memories and truth seem to be the big themes, especially in the last section where Max revisits his birthplace W., not visited for decades. The critical scene perhaps is when he is in the attic with Lukas he touches an old grey chasseur uniform from the 19th century it crumbles to nothing. You touch and it’s gone.

At last he explains, or does not, what he has been about in the place of his birth:

… Lukas wanted to know what had brought me back to W. after so many years, and in November of all times. To my surprise he understood my rather complicated and sometimes contradictory explanations right away. He particularly agreed when I said that over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, I said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling. (212)

30 WG Sebald2

Writing

The writing gives the impression that the narrator is detached from the events described. There is an evenness of tone, an absence of dialogue, little reported speech. The narrative is like the railway lines, stretching behind, and onwards, with branches off which he may or may not take.

The restlessness manages to be the opposite of dull, and perhaps this is due to Sebald’s extensive middle European cultural knowledge, especially of art and literature and his skill in descriptions of landscapes. Obfuscation is what happens all the time. There are no explanations, no emotional responses to events. In Milan, two young men set upon the narrator, and I had to read the passage twice before I could understand that they had taken nothing from him.

Not until I turned on my heel and swung the bag off my shoulder into the pair of them did I manage to disengage myself and retreat to one of the pillars in the archway. LA PROSSIMA COINCIDENZA. None of the passers-by had taken any notice of the incident. I, however, watched my two assailants, jerking curiously as if they were out of an early motion picture, vanish in the half-light under the colonnades. In the taxi, I clutched my bag with both hands. To my remark that Milan was dangerous territory, ventured in as casual a tone as I could muster, the driver responded with a gesture of helplessness. (109)

And we are into a description of the fortified taxi cab, and then of the hotel. The mugging is already behind him.

We don’t know whether the people referred to really existed or not. How do the four sections relate? Why are Stendhal and Kafka referred to as Marie Henri Beyle and Dr K respectively? Is this memoir or fiction? Is it a new form of travel writing? I think it defies labelling and we need not be detained trying to fit the labels to this book.

I’ve recently been reading Virginia Woolf and it strikes me that she was trying to reproduce how humans experience the world, and that may also be Sebald’s purpose. The world is not delivered to us in neat packages, but in an ever-turning series of events, which change and become less secure as we examine them. The experience of the world is not unlike the experience of vertigo.

It has been suggested that his four novels should be seen as a quartet: The Emigrants, Austerlitz, The Moons of Saturn and Vertigo. I don’t think it matters too much whether they are seen as separate or a quartet. They all have virtues, and together they remind us what was lost when Sebald died in a road accident in December 2001.

Vertigo by WG Sebald was first published in English in 1999 and published by Vintage in 2002. 263pp

Translated from the German by Michael Hulse.

226 Emmig

Related posts

Why you should read WG Sebald by Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker to mark the 10th anniversary of Sebald’s death, December 2011, is a useful introduction.

Written in January 2000, before Max Sebald died, this post by Stephen Moss in the Guardian made most sense and was very helpful to me. Falling for Vertigo

Returning to The Emigrants by WG Sebald from January 2016

The original post The Emigrants by WG Sebald; one of those enduring blogposts that receives constant readership, from May 2013

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The Green Road by Anne Enright

Anne Enright was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2007 for The Gathering. She has since been regarded as one of the foremost Irish writers of our time. The Forgotten Waltz was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction (as it was called in 2012). The Green Road was published last year. It did well – Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Irish Novel of the Year, Costa Novel Award short list and choice of the year for several people. It has also gained a few blog endorsements. I read one review, however, which dismissed the novel as clichéd. While some of the situations may be very familiar in Irish history (and life), Anne Enright’s treatment is anything but a cliché. Here’s why.

231 Gr Rd cover

The story and structure of the novel

Rosaleen Madigan lives in County Clare. By 2005 her four children have grown up and away: Hanna is an alcoholic failed actress with post-natal depression; Constance stayed, married a local man who makes a good living in the Irish building boom of the early 2000s; Emmet works for NGOs to save lives in the developing world; Dan went to be a priest and decided he was gay and lives in Toronto.

In part one we see the family members in a number of different episodes, distant from each other and from their parents: Hanna as a child in 1980; Dan in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1991; Constance having a cancer check in 1997; Emmet in Mali breaking up with yet another lover in 2002. Their separate lives make their connections to each other tenuous. By the end of the first section the reader knows much more about the lives of the four Madigan children than their family members ever will.

In the second part, narrated in one timeframe, 2005, they are together in County Clare. Rosaleen, now widowed, has summoned her children to a Christmas reunion. None of the four bring partners or children except Constance who lives locally and does much of the fetching and carrying and organising. Their separation is emphasised by the festivities. Rosaleen adds to the discomfort when she goes missing for a while on a walk in the darkness, and the dramas continue even after they find her. No much is resolved by the conclusion.

Themes

The novel is concerned with connections and absence of connections within families; the pull of the past, relatives, place, personal histories and myths; how individuals and families face challenges; compassion for the difficulties of others; the change of parental role from providing care to neediness. ‘It’s about the gaps in the human heart and how we learn to fill them.’ (LRB video see below)

View from Mount Vernon across the Flaggy Shore and the inlet by Keith Salvesen May 2006 via WikiCommons

View from Mount Vernon across the Flaggy Shore and the inlet by Keith Salvesen May 2006 via WikiCommons

Rosaleen’s disappearance highlights how she and the landscape are the only connections between the family members, and they are not that strong. Her decision to sell the family home, Ardeevin, creates tensions. She has reminded her children that they have little invested in their past. They are shocked by the prospect of Rosaleen moving, but then realise that it makes no difference, except for Constance with whom she threatens to move in.

The writing

Anne Enright in 2008 by Hpschaefer via WikiCommons

Anne Enright in 2008 by Hpschaefer via WikiCommons

Anne Enright is a compelling writer. She has referred to ‘the pleasure of the sentence’. I found the section on New York and the gay community unbearably sad.

The story is small, undramatic, although individual episodes in the first part have plenty of action. As Emmet observes, they live ‘small lives’. Not much happens to the family except that Rosaleen goes missing. But within the small spaces a great deal is revealed about families and relationships. Here are some examples.

Emmet prepares for the reunion in his house in Dublin. He says goodbye to his Dutch girlfriend and then waits for Hanna to arrive for their journey to Ardeevin.

Then he faced back into the horrors of the Madigans – their small hearts (his own was not entirely huge) and the small lives they put themselves through. Emmet closed his eyes and tilted his face up, and there she was: his mother, down in the kitchen in Ardeevin. Her shadow moving through him. He had to shake her out of himself like a wet dog.

Mother.

His stupid sister late, as ever. (210)

Emmet’s awareness does not help him in his relationships with women. His compassion is reserved for those in the countries he works in.

Knockvorneen from the Flaggy Shore by A McCarron June 2008 via WikiCommons

Knockvorneen from the Flaggy Shore by A McCarron June 2008 via WikiCommons

Constance, of course Constance, meets Dan at Shannon Airport and as they drive to Ardeevin he looks out of the window of her Lexus.

As they travelled towards home, the landscape accumulated in Dan like a silt of meaning that was disturbed by the line of the hedgerow or the sight of winter trees along a ridge. All at once it was familiar. He knew this place. It was a secret he carried inside himself; a map of things he had known and lost, these half glimpsed houses and stone walls, the fields of solid green. (203)

The image of the ‘silt of meaning’ carried around from childhood is a powerful one. Many of the aspects of childhood in this family are silted up. The landscape runs through the novel, surfacing every now and again – Constance’s first trip to the clinic, Rosaleen’s walk in darkness, and Dan’s experience on arrival. The town in which Rosaleen lives is never named ‘to give a sense of elsewhere’ to the landscape. The Green Road that gives the novel its title is exists.

The description of Constance’s pre-Christmas shopping trip is terrifying. The excess of buying, the volume of stuff, the return for yet more, all conveyed in calm prose, a huge list – it is powerful a statement of Constance’s life and values.

Anne Enright seems to be saying that life is hard; relationships, especially those you are born into, but others you take on, they are difficult however you choose to live your life.

That mean-spirited blog review which suggested The Green Road is clichéd and Anne Enright over-rated made me look more closely at her skill. While the outline of the characters may be clichéd her skill is to capture, a bit like Elizabeth Taylor, the silences and shifts between people.

The Green Road by Anne Enright, published in 2015 by Vintage 310 pp

Related

The books that I loved in 2015 by James Wood in the New Yorker, 4th January 2016.

LRB video 9 minutes, from which Anne Enright’s quotations are taken.

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What is the Prime Minister reading?

In the spring of 2007 on study leave in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada I attended a large international social sciences conference hosted by the University. One morning I found myself at a talk by Yann Martel the prize winning author of The Life of Pi (not yet a major motion picture but still prize winning and much discussed.) What, I wondered, would the author of this rather quirky novel have to say.

218 Life of Pi coverYann Martel blew me away, not by talking about tigers in boats and shipwrecks or the meaning of life, but instead he told us about a recent incident, which had left him very offended and not a little steamed up. And he was doing something about it.

The inciting incident

The incident concerned casual, even impolite behaviour by the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in the House of Commons in Ottawa. 50 Canadian artists from all disciplines had been invited to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Canada Council for the Arts in March 2007. In the visitors gallery the 50 artists stood up, were acknowledged by the relevant minister and in 5 minutes the celebrations of Canadian arts was finished and the MPs turned to other business.

From the shadow into which I had been cast, I focused on one man. The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute. He didn’t even look up. By all appearances, he didn’t even know we were there. (5)

The Prime Minister, Yann Martel told us, was shuffling through his papers preparing for the next business.

The action

Yann Martel, relating this story (it’s retold with slightly less vehemence in the book, which I’ll come to), revealed his complete commitment to reading and books. He began a project that lasted nearly four years, writing to Stephen Harper and enclosing a short book to illustrate why reading is so important. The first book was The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.

In reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker. (16)

He received a short letter of acknowledgement in reply from the Prime Minister’s office.

He continued to send a book every two weeks, with a covering letter. It was usually shorter than 200 pages, and where possible in a paperback edition, sometimes second hand. He also set up a website so other people could see his choices, the letters that explained them and the responses of Mr Harper. People would be able to make recommendations. And they did.

The outcomes

In the event the Prime Minister’s office only acknowledged two of the 55 books that were sent between April 2007 and February 2011.

For a while Yann Martel’s small-scale pro-book campaign gathered momentum and followers. He compiled a book, What is Stephen Harper Reading? explaining the project, his book club of two people, and including the letters he sent with the books. Later he included the original in 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Both books are currently out of print.

218 St Harper

In October 2015 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was defeated by the Canadian Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau. I was reminded, by news of his defeat, of Yann Martel’s project and got hold of a copy of What is Stephen Harper Reading? The book club had finished by then.

Yann Martel said as he ended his project,

I’m tired of using books as political bullets and grenades. Books are too wonderful to be used long for such a function. (Toronto Star 2.2.11)

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

218 What you reading? coverIt’s a book about books, and it’s a book about why reading is so important for individuals, including politicians. He describes it as a small book club but it’s actually a course in reading. He goes through 55 books, which he sent Stephen Harper April 2007 and May 2009. Answering the question why it’s his or anyone’s business what Stephen Harper is reading he writes this.

But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me, because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do. As I wrote in one of my letters to the man, if Stephen Harper hasn’t read The Death of Ivan Ilych or any other Russian novel, if he hasn’t read Miss Julia or any other Scandinavian play, if he hasn’t read Metamorphosis or any other German-language novel, or if he hasn’t read Waiting for Godot or To the Lighthouse or any other experimental play or novel, if he hasn’t read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or The Educated Imagination or any other philosophical inquiry, if he hasn’t read … then what is his mind made of? (10)

218 obama2-large

The choice of books is wide ranging: novels, plays, poems, meditations, short story collections, children’s books, graphic novels, crime novels, in English and French, in translation and from the last 400 years.

It does the work of good fiction: it transports you to a situation that might be alien to you, makes it familiar, and so brings understanding. (From the letter on The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.) (95)

The making of art, as I may have mentioned to you before, involves a lot of work. Because of that it is implicitly constructive. One doesn’t work so hard merely to destroy. No matter how much cruelty and sadness a story may hold, its effect is always the opposite. … Art then is implicitly liberal; it encourages us towards openness and generosity, it seeks to unlock doors. (From the letter on The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison.) (145)

Of course, it is a little disingenuous of Yann Martel to reproach Mr Harper in this way for he cannot respond. But then he should have paid attention when Canadian arts were being honoured and acknowledged the gifts he was sent. Martel is occasionally preachy and portentous. But I can forgive him that for the intent at the heart of his action (connecting books and politics), and by providing such an interesting book about books and their importance. And I’d love to be existentially thicker.

A few notes on Saskatoon

People were very rude about Saskatoon, not a large city right in the middle of Canada. They told me it’s so flat you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for two days.

While I was in the University Bookshop the assistant said, ‘Gee I love your accent. Are you from London?’ At that time I was. ‘Have you ever met Madonna?’ I laughed. ‘That would be like me asking you if you have ever met Joni Mitchell.’ ‘But I have. She used to visit her grandmother in the old people’s home where my aunt was.’ That’s Saskatoon for you.

It turns out that Yann Martel and Alice Knipers live in Saskatoon. Joni Mitchell (get well soon) also claims it as her home town. Not bad for Saskatoon. Not bad for Canada.

What is Stephen Harper Reading? By Yann Martel, published in 2009 by Vintage Canada. 230pp

Over to you

You can find the complete list of books recommended by Yann Martell on the University of Montana Library site.

Characters from a famous soap opera?

Characters from a famous soap opera?

What is David Cameron reading? Do we know? Do we care? Is he conscious of British writers and artists and their achievements? What would you recommend to him if you had the chance, or to any other politician?

 

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