Monthly Archives: February 2021

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky

The grandmother of the title is racist, outspoken, a liar, a hypochondriac, a schemer and secretive.

At the refugee home, we were, as Grandmother noted unhappily, surrounded by Jews. She’d never made a secret of her antisemitism: “Not because of Jesus or anything. I have genuine, personal reasons.” She’s nearly burst whenever she had to keep herself from using certain curses during toasts with the neighbors. Then she’d revel in the fact that she’d managed to gain access for us to the privileges of the golden West under false premises. ‘Just so you don’t think we’re really Jews,” she hammered home to me while feeling my forehead for a fever. “Opa had an uncle who had a brother-in-law. He had a Jewish wife. That’s how it works. Don’t ask.” (10)

The character of the grandmother is grotesque at the outset of this novella. Her grandson, Max, who tells the story, is only six, and is watched over obsessively by his Russian grandmother. With her husband they have come to live in Berlin in a converted hotel.

The home was a former hotel with a cracking plaster façade and a sign still adorning the entrance that said “Sunshine Inn”. […] Grandmother looked unfavorably on most of the new acquaintances: she was suspicious of people who left their homelands, except when it came to us. (10-11) 

With such characters, in such a situation, the opportunities for humour and wit are plentiful and fully embraced in this German novella.

My Grandmother’s Braid

When I began to read this novella, I was hoping that Max and his grandfather would eventually escape the old woman’s attentions. She supervises Max’s every move, obsessively keeping germs at bay, and providing only liquid food for the boy claiming that he has a very weak constitution. She even attends school with him when he starts. She continues to supervise him until she finds another child to do the surveillance for her.

The grandfather meets and falls in love with another refugee, Nina. When Nina becomes pregnant you might expect that all hell would be unleashed. But the grandmother is nothing if not pragmatic, and the two household gradually integrate and the baby is cared for by three adults in different combinations. The pressure is off Max, and he learns to stand up for himself.

He also learns more about his grandmother’s past – she is a former prima ballerina. And about his own mother and what happened to her. The grandmother shows herself to be very enterprising, and sets up a dancing school for the neighbourhood. As Max and his baby uncle grow up their lives become more settled and Max is able to take risks, to understand his grandmother’s obsessions and eventually to follow his own path.

In the course of the story we have been presented with many scenes of humour based on mutual incomprehension, visual effects (such as the silent workforce attending the grandfather’s funeral), quick repartee: ”Where is his mother? Is it true she sold him?” “No,” said grandmother calmly. “Look at him. Would anybody ask for money for that?”

This book was great fun, and also provided some poignant moments which made me reflect on the situation of some of the most despised people in Europe. This group of refugees need the grandmother’s endurance if not her grandiloquence. Overwhelmingly, it is a book about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways . 

The book was sent to me because I have a subscription with the Asymptote Club

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky is the pseudonym of a Russian-German writer. Born in 1978 she now lives in Berlin and has written a number of novels, including The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. She is highly regarded for her vibrant prose and has won many literary awards in Germany. 

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky, originally published in 2019 as Der Zopf meiner Grossmutter. The English translation from the German by Tim Mohr was published by Europa Editions in 2021. 159pp

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The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann

Rosamond Lehmann is one of the best writers I know for describing the feelings and anxieties of people in relationships. Sometimes her protagonists are outsiders, as in Dusty Answer and Invitation to the Waltz. In The Weather in the Street and in the subject of this post, The Echoing Grove, the relationships are more complex and changeable. The authenticity of the drama she narrates is never in question. It is, as I suggested in a previous post, as if ‘it’s our own story exactly’.

The Echoing Grove

My copy of The Echoing Grove has been sitting on my shelf for some time, a second hand orange, Penguin edition bought some time ago. Having read and reviewed three novels by Rosamond Lehmann over the last eight months I decided to read this fourth one. 

The novel is concerned primarily with a trio of characters: Rickie, his wife Madeleine and her sister Dinah.  It is the 1930s. Rickie falls for Dinah soon after he married her sister and they embark on an affair. But the course of their love is hardly smooth as Madeleine is badly hurt, Rickie leaves Dinah, then returns to her, she becomes pregnant, the baby is still born, she attempts suicide, and so on. The lives of these characters are interwoven until Rickie’s death in 1944.

Each of them has other lovers that we meet over the course of the novel, but it is with these three and their shifting and unhappy triangle that we are centrally concerned. When Madeleine and her sister Dinah meet at the start of the novel, after 14 years of separation it is in fact almost the end of the story. The author plays about with chronology throughout the novel, trusting the reader to pick up the hints and follow the shifts in time. She does the same with point of view; sometimes moving into the head of one of the three main characters, shifting from third to first person within a paragraph. 

All this shifting about reflects the changing nature of the triangle. Even when one of the three resolve not to see another they change their behaviour soon enough. It might be a suicide attempt, or a health crisis, or an accidental meeting. Rickie thinks of it as ‘a game that no one ever won’. (120)

The three characters are very different, and are more appealing or more worthy of sympathy at varying points in the story. They all possess human weaknesses: Rickie unable to resist temptation; Dinah always the rebel out to shock; and Madeleine stands upon her position as the wronged wife. I have over simplified, for this is a novel about human frailty and my summations do not do it justice.

It is pretty intense, as love affairs can be, with scenes of heightened drama, such as in the night club or when Rickie decides to follow up the wife of his best friend. In the end too many threads were self-consciously tied up: the burn on the bedside table; the £1 that is owed, the cuff links, the important scenes recollected and picked over by all participants. And the scene in the Blitz, when Rickie is talking to a new lover, made me think about all those men who think it is women’s job to listen to them go on and on. It is seventy pages long.

The title appears to reference the poem Broken Love by William Blake. The title of the poem seems apt, but the echoing aspect is not clear to me.

‘Let us agree to give up love, 
And root up the Infernal Grove;
Then shall we return and see
The worlds of happy Eternity. 

‘And throughout all Eternity 
I forgive you, you forgive me.
As our dear Redeemer said: 
“This the Wine, and this the Bread.”’ (From Broken Love by William Blake)

Don’t pick The Echoing Grove up for an exciting story. For a novel full of emotion and that pulls your sympathies around a bit, The Echoing Grove is excellent.

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1953. I used the Penguin edition from 1958. 302pp. A more recent version was published in the Virago Modern Classics series in 2013.

Related Links

Three other reviews of novels by Rosamond Lehmann on Bookword

Dusty Answer (1927) in July 2020

Invitation to the Waltz (1932) in July 2020

The Weather in the Street (1936) in November 2020

Simon Lavery reviewed The Echoing Grove in May 2020 on his blog, Tredynas Days and noted, as I have, the very long scene set in the Blitz. I enjoyed his reaction to it.

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Perfect Presents for a Bookish Bod

Eileen Carnell sent me an email. I asked her if I could use it on my blog. Eileen and I wrote several books together. (Here we are at a reading of Retiring with Attitude at Leatherhead Library in Autumn of 2014).

Dear Caroline, 

A response to your blog of the 10th January: Best Books for … the Long Haul

Hamnet

On Saturday morning there was no possibility of taking a walk. There were chores to do and indoor exercises to undertake but I thought that while I drank my decaff I’d read just for a few minutes. About two hours on, and 71 pages later, I put down my birthday copy of Hamnet*. I was captivated, transported back to 1596, my brain conveyed to a different landscape. I was immersed, time stopped, the outer world no longer existed. This is how I love to read – it feeds my spirit, provides sheer joy, escapism and a sense of well-being. As such Hamnet is a brilliant book to read during lockdown and the terrible connection between the plague of that time and Covid makes it even more timely.

Couch Fiction

I’m not a fan of cartoons. Comics were banned in our family when I was growing up so I never really learned how to read them, not knowing which bit of writing to read first or which part of the picture to look at**. But a second birthday gift this year changed my mind about such reading formats. This is Couch Fiction with its great sub-title A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy. This book is witty, droll and delightful. Phillipa Perry *** is the psychotherapist in question. Flo Perry, her daughter provided the illustrations. 

This book works on two levels. It tell the story of a psychotherapeutic encounter through pictures, speech and thought bubbles. Then beneath each page of the interactions between the two characters there are notes which demystify the encounter providing an easy read of the theory, for example, it highlights if the therapist is moving too fast, her use of hunches, any clumsy interventions and how the person being helped may react, and for students of the process there is some useful stuff on transference and attachment theories. So this is familiar territory for me but a great light but satisfying reminder – a perfect gift for me.

The Best of Me

And speaking of the joy of the familiar and ideal presents I will never tire of reading David Sedaris. In particular his short story about the mouse entitled Nuit of the Living Dead is fantastic. This book The Best of Mewas one of my Christmas presents. Reading what makes me laugh out loud is such a tonic and really does raise my spirits – a treat to come for anyone who hasn’t read it – so witty, so subversive. I was lucky to have heard him reading this story aloud at The British Library a couple of years ago.

Talking Books

I love being read to so Talking Books are a joy to me, especially to send me off to sleep during these troubled times. Instead of watching the news at ten I settle down to listen to stories. Re-reading is also something I enjoy and I’ll never tire of Sissy Spacek reading Scout’s account of her first day at school with that wonderful Southern accent of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve also listened this month to Elizabeth is Missing, How to be Both, The Accidental Tourist (again) and Jane Eyre – hence my opening sentence ****.

Beginnings

Some beginnings are embedded in my brain and while reading I’m looking out for beautiful descriptions and passages that I wish I’d written. I love examining openings, not just of books themselves, but of paragraphs and new chapters. It can often take me a while to read a book because I spend ages re-reading sentences to analyse their construction. I love names too and often make a note of them to steal later for my own novella – swopping first names of some with different surnames – Gregory Page-Turner and Saffron Milford are examples of ones I plan to introduce soon – he a church warden, she a novelist.

And …

I’ve also got waiting for me from Christmas and birthday:

Raynor Winn, The Wild Silence

Sarah Moss, Summerwater

Monica Connell, Gathering Carrageen

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

Mark Billingham, Cry Baby

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing

Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather

And with a book token given to me by my brother-in-law for Christmas I am going to order the second and third in the series of Ian Rankin’s Rebus thrillers. 

I’m confident I have enough reading material to keep me going for ages. Who knows when I’ll get my second vaccination or when lockdown will end but I hope I’ll have one or two books left to take on board a train or ferry to Scotland or Ireland again. Roll on Summer.

Notes

* Hamnet and Hamlet were used in Shakespeare’s day interchangeably. This remarkable book is written by Maggie O’Farrell (2020).

** An exception to this rule was Posy Simmonds in The Guardian

*** Her husband is the more famous artist Grayson Perry.

**** Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

From Eileen Carnell

Related posts on Bookword

Best Books for … the Long Haul (January 2021)

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 (September 2020)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (February 2015)

How to be both by Ali Smith (March 2015)

The Accidental Tourist (again) by Anne Tyler (October 2015)

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Red Ellen – The Novels of Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson has long been a hero of mine. She was one of the first female Labour MPs, and had a reputation as a ‘firebrand’, probably because of her red hair. Most memorably, she was MP for Jarrow at the time of the famous hunger march (1936). You can find photographs of her leading it: a small figure in comparison to other marchers.

Born in 1891 into a working class family in Manchester, she got her education there and began her political activities by supporting female suffrage. She went on to work as a trade union organiser, and was first elected to parliament in 1924 when most Labour MPs lost their seats. She won Middlesborough East by a majority of 972. As a trade unionist she was involved in the General Strike of 1926 but she lost her seat after the failure of the second Labour Government in 1931, returning to parliament in 1935. 

While she was out of parliament she turned to writing, earning her keep as a journalist, and writing her two novels, the subjects of this post. Her return to parliament kept her too busy to continue with fiction writing. During the Second World War she served in the coalition government and became Minister of Education in the post-war Labour government. Sadly she died too young in 1947, having suffered from bronchial asthma, been a smoker and an overworker all her adult life.

It is with some sadness that I realise that my grandfather would have known her as he was also elected in 1935, albeit as a Liberal. Sadly I did not take the opportunity to ask him. I am sure he would have known her, full of energy, small, with red hair and a dramatic sense of colour and style in her clothing.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson

Clash was published in 1929 and much of it is drawn from the author’s experiences of the General Strike, such a bold move, such exciting times, but ultimately a failure. The miners, in support of whom it was called, suffered for months in the lock out that followed. Joan Craig is the heroine, and her proximity to the leaders of the unions, her hard work to keep the strike going, and her support for the miners are all drawn from Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences. But Joan has black not red hair.

This is also a love story. Joan falls for the older Bloomsbury writer, Tony Dacre. Much of the second part of the novel is taken up with Joan’s dilemma: follow her heart or continue with her work supporting workers. 

The clash of the title is evident in so many aspects of the story. I was struck by how many of these tensions still exist 90 years later. There is the tension between the North and the South of England. All the excitement of the strike and the pleasure of intellectual company and activities is found in London. Joan is tempted. But in the North there is real poverty, exploitation of workers, and work that she is so good at to be done. 

The North-South divide is also a class divide. Tony Dacre offers Joan the possibility of more comfort and security. The passages describing the hardships of life when the miners were locked out are a strong as any in the novel. The ignorance of the middle class (in both senses of ignorance) is shocking. And the class divide is sharpest in the failed relationships of bosses and trade unions.

There is the male-female tension, played out as she considers the life offered by Tony. His view is that she would have to give up her work, dedicate her life to him if they were together. And he believes that romantic love is justification enough for this. It’s what women do. A clash between intellectual and romantic views of life is also shown. I won’t pre-empt your reading by telling you how Joan resolved these dilemmas. But like her creator she did not disappoint.

My interest in the history of the time was well rewarded by reading this novel, full of action and ideas. I enjoyed it. Thanks to HeavenAli for drawing it to my attention on her blog.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, published in 1932. It was reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1989. 309pp

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson 

This second novel also draws on Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences, this time in the House of Commons. She had been a PPS (parliamentary private secretary) to several ministers. The amateur detective in her novel  Robert West, is a young male MP, PPS to the Home Secretary, known as Flossie. I chose to read this as a relief from some books that had hard-to-read passages of abuse of women. It is a light read.

A gunshot is heard at the same moment as Big Ben struck and the division bell sounded. A rich American banker has been murdered in Dining Room J. Rob West is tasked with helping the police find the culprit. The Home Secretary was meeting with Oissel to negotiate a government loan but left for the division just before Oissel was found dead. The story features the beautiful but ice-cold grand-daughter of the murdered man, her fiancé who is also an MP, a female MP from the Labour Party, a journalist, the Scotland Yard detective, a Peer of the Realm and the chief Civil Servant in the Home Office. Who did it?

The story is slight, but one relationship caught my attention. Rob West asks Grace Richards MP for some help.

The attitude of Robert West to the modern young woman was typical of that of a very young man. He preferred the intelligent woman. He liked to be seen about with one who was also making a name for herself. But while he was interested in her he expected her to put her own affairs in the background, and devote herself to his. When she was no longer needed she might be permitted to pick up her own threads again, but she must not trouble him. This he called allowing a woman to lead her own life. (120)

He asks her for help.

“And why should I help you?”
Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? (123)

There is an edge in this little exchange which makes me think that Ellen Wilkinson had encountered this young man’s attitude many times. 

I would love to have met Ellen Wilkinson, heard her make a speech, watch her navigate male-dominated politics. I enjoyed her two novels, and that will have to do.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, first published in 1932 and reissued in 2018 in the British Library Crime Classics series. 254pp

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Beowulf – 1

The Anglo-Saxons have never left us: swear words, place names and the foundation of our language. We have some great archaeological Anglo-Saxon finds including several hoards containing jewellery, such as the Staffordshire and Lenborough Hoards – hidden and never reclaimed – and the magnificent Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. And there is Beowulf. Beowulf’s story has survived for about 1500 years, composed around the 6th or 7th centuries and written down in the 10th or 11th centuries. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library and tells the story of the hero Beowulf and his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon.

Beowulf, from the kingdom of the Geats, in present-day Sweden, brings his warriors to help the Danish king defend his beautiful great hall from Grendel. Grendel is a blood-thirsty monster who terrorises the hall at night. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing his arm off. The monster’s mother wants vengeance and Beowulf follows her into a deep, dark lake where he kills her. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in a battle to protect his people that is his last. His body is set alight in a funeral pyre and a barrow made in his honour, high on a cliff to warn ships of the rocks below.

Origially the story would probably have been told in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Some of the There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations and retellings.

When I taught history in Coventry, many moons ago, I used to love the unit on Anglo-Saxons as it enabled me to retell the story of Beowulf and Grendel, and to explore the Sutton Hoo Ship burial. After the tale of heroic actions, in which Beowulf’s arm was claimed to have the strength of thirty men, he survived almost a day under water and he died fighting a fire-breathing dragon, after retelling his adventures some child would always ask, ‘is it true? Did it really happen?’

The story of Beowulf has been retold many times, in translations, novels, films and other adaptations. In this and further posts I plan to look at the enduring appeal of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and its retelling in books. In this post I look at some of the straightforward renditions of the poem. In future posts I’ll consider some more imaginative versions and the attraction of the Anglo-Saxon tale.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney 

This recent translation was the work of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. We get the whole poem including quite a bit of elaborated history, moments of glory, family events, repeated account of the heroic deeds, and interludes. Heaney has concentrated on telling the story, finding many synonyms for the characters and repeating the reminders that all this was done by God’s power.

In off the moors, down through the mist-band
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. (24)

Many of the characters are introduced by their reputation before we actually meet them: Beowulf, Grendel and his mother as well as some of the kings that Beowulf serves. The verse story confirms the two children’s versions I read.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber in 1999106pp

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff 

As you expect from this great writer, this retelling of the story is very accessible and full of the details for which she was famed. It is helped by Charles Keeping’s illustrations, which while being of their time add considerably to imagining this tale of impossible heroics. As in so many of her stories Rosemary Sutcliff stresses the loyalties that tied together the royal houses of the Danes and the Geats, respected by the kings, seafarers and warriors, as well as the debts that must be repaid when demanded. 

In the great hall of Hygelac, King of the Geats, supper was over and the mead horns going round. It was the time of evening, with dusk gathering beyond the firelight, when the warriors called for Angelm the king’s bard to wake his harp for their amusement; but tonight they had something else to listen to than the half-sung, half-told stories of ancient heroes that they knew by heart. Tonight there were strangers in their midst, seafarers with the salt still in their hair, from the first trading ship to reach them since the ice melted and the wild geese came North again. (8)

Illustrated by Charles Keeping

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1961 and reissued by Puffin in 1966. 108pp

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo 

This is a more recent version than Dragon Slayer, and is written for slightly younger readers. The story is faithfully told, but without all the genealogical detail of the original and its many diversions. I find the illustrations by Michael Foreman to add less to the retelling than those of Charles Keeping. In this retelling again the  emphasis is on loyalty, courage and indebtedness. 

Hear, and listen well, my friends, and I will tell you a tale that has been told for a thousand years and more. It may be an old story, yet, as you will discover, it troubles and terrifies us now as much as ever it did our ancestors, for we still fear the evil that stalks out there in the darkness and beyond. (13)

Michael Morpurgo notes his debt to other translated versions, including Rosemary Sutcliff, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Michael Alexander. 

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, published in 2006 by Walker Books. 150pp

See also Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf  by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

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