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Archive for September, 2013

This year, after lurking on the sidelines for the last few times, I decided to participate in Carl’s RIP event. The RIP event has many different levels, but I thought that instead of committing myself to a particular level and putting myself under pressure, I will just read in a freestyle way and see how things go. I searched around in my home, looked into forgotten corners of my bookshelves, and then took out all the books which had a horror / supernatural / ghost theme. Then I also picked out some stories which didn’t fit in strictly into these categories, but which could be squeezed in. (‘Mystery’, ‘Suspense’ and ‘Thriller’ are also appropriate categories for RIP – I think I can squeeze in many books here 🙂) But I am not going to cheat – I am going to read mostly books which deal with ghosts and the supernatural and can be considered part of the horror genre. I might try to sneak in a thriller which fits in with this mood.

RIP VIII

The first two books I picked for the RIP event were collections of ghost stories. They were slim and were easy reads and so I thought they will be good for warming up for the event.

 

The first book was ‘Ghost Stories’.  Once in a while, I go to the Oxford University Press office in my city and browse in their bookshop for part of the afternoon. The OUP bookshop has a very unique collection of books, when compared to regular bookshops. So I always enjoy browsing there. One of the sections there that I enjoy browsing is the section for younger readers which had abridged classics and original books written for younger readers. These books have end of chapter exercises and activities, a glossary and other interesting extras. It is always a pleasure to read them. When I was in school, I used to love them. I still love them. Once in a while, when I want to feel that I am still a child at school, I buy some of these abridged books and read them from cover to cover. ‘Ghost Stories’ (retold by Rosemary Border) was one of those abridged classics.

Ghost Stories Retold By Rosemary Border

‘Ghost Stories’ is a slim collection of six stories. All of them were Victorian (or Victorian-style) ghost stories, mostly written between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The stories in the collection were :

 

Smee by A.M.Burrage

The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker

The Stranger in the Mist by A.N.L.Munby

The Confessions of Charles Linkworth by E.F.Benson

The Ghost Coach by Amelia B. Edwards

Fullcircle by John Buchan

 

I liked all the stories in different ways, but I liked some more than the others. My favourite story in the book was John Buchan’s ‘Fullcircle’ which is about a house which has a personality of its own, influences its occupants in subtle ways, shapes their lives to fit its own style but also makes their lives full and rich and happy. It is a gentle, affectionate house. My favourite passage from the book was also from this story. It went like this :

 

Then, as I looked, the actors and the stage seemed to disappear. I was conscious of only one ‘person’ – the house itself. It sat there in its little valley, smiling at all our modern ideas. And all the time its spirit worked its gentle influence on those who loved it. The house was more than a building; it was an art, a way of life. Its spirit was older than Carteron, older than England. A long time ago, in ancient Greece and Rome, there were places like Fullcircle. But in those days they were called temples, and gods lived in them.

 

I liked the gentle ghosts in some of the other stories. In ‘The Stranger in the Mist’, a gentle ghost tries to help people who are lost in the mountains at night, but it has the wrong map and so its intentions don’t work as expected. In ‘The Confessions of Charles Linkworth’, a condemned man’s ghost turns up and asks for forgiveness. In ‘Smee’ the ghost of a girl who fell off the stairs while playing hide-and-seek comes back to participate in similar games which others play in that house in later years. ‘The Ghost Coach’ is about a coach which carries ghosts and which re-enacts an accident which happened in the mountains twenty years back, everyday. The scary ghost in the book was the one in Bram Stoker’s ‘The Judge’s House’. It is the ghost of the cruel judge – it is terrible and it doesn’t leave any occupant of the house alone in peace.

 

The second collection of ghost stories I read was ‘The Rupa Book of Haunted Houses’ edited by Ruskin Bond. It also had Victorian (or Victorian-style) ghost stories. Many of the star writers (of ghost stories) of that era are featured in the book – M.R.James, A.M.Burrage, Bram Stoker, Algernon Blackwood, E.F.Benson, Hugh Walpole. There were fourteen stories and three poems in the collection.

The Rupa Book Of Haunted HousesEditedByRuskinBond

My favourite story in the collection was Hugh Walpole’s ‘The Staircase’. In case you haven’t guessed it already, it is also about a house, which has a life and a personality and which loves its inhabitants. Then a three member family comes to live in the house – a young man, his wife and his sister. The sister tries to poison the young man’s mind against his wife. The wife is an innocent person. The house loves the young man and his wife. What it does to protect the young wife forms the rest of the story. I liked the story so much that I want to read more stories by Hugh Walpole now.

 

Some of my other favourite stories from the book were ‘A Pair of Hands’ by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (it features a beautiful house with a gentle ghost which reveals itself only through its hands and which keeps the house spic and span while everyone else is sleeping), ‘Nobody’s House’ by A.M.Burrage (about a murder which happened in a house many years back and a mysterious man who has come to the house to investigate it), ‘The Haunted Doll’s House’ by M.R.James (which is about a doll house which mysteriously gets lighted up at night and the dolls suddenly take a life of their own and a story gets enacted which looks eerily real), ‘The Gardener’ by E.F.Benson (about a dead gardener who comes back in search of his wife), ‘Gone Fishing’ by Ruskin Bond (about a servant who faithfully waits for many years for his master to come back and when his master returns he discovers some surprises – the story had a beautiful ending) and the two stories featuring the psychologist who investigates ghosts, Flaxman Low – ‘The Story of Yand Manor House’ and ‘The Story of the Spaniards, Hammersmith’ by E. and H. Heron.

 

There is a charming passage in the introduction to the book, written by Ruskin Bond, which I liked very much. It goes like this :

 

“I like to do my late-night reading in an old rocking-chair that I picked up at an antique shop a few months ago. It had once belonged to a former Maharani, I was told. It creaks rather loudly when in motion, but I’ve got used to that. The other night, after I’d gone to bed and switched off the lights, I heard the old chair creaking. Turning on the light, I saw that the chair was quite empty although it was rocking backwards and forwards as though it had an occupant. Presently it was still. This is something that has happened several times during the past few weeks. Perhaps the rocking-chair’s former owner wishes to use it from time to time. I don’t mind her rocking and rolling in the chair, just so long as she doesn’t appear in person…”

 

I enjoyed reading both the ghost story collections. Looking at my favourite stories from both the collections, it looks like I have a soft corner for stories which feature a house with a gentle, kind personality. I don’t know whether that is a genre – if it is, I would like to read more stories from that genre.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the second book.

 

And all three laughed together then, though each laugh had a different sound. (from ‘The Decoy’ by Algernon Blackwood)

 

Thierry, glancing across, was struck by the strange likeness between the faces of the Egyptian goddess and this scientific of the nineteenth century. On both rested the calm, mysterious abstraction of some unfathomable thought. (from ‘The Story of Yand Manor House’ by E. and H. Heron)

 

You have doubtless been often surprised that neighbours think that such and such events have been the dramatic changing moments in your life – as when you lost your wife or your money or had scarlet fever – when in reality it was the blowing of a window curtain, the buying of a ship in silver, or the cry of a child on the stair. (from ‘The Staircase’ by Hugh Walpole)

 

I think I have made a slow, quiet start to RIP. I can’t wait to read my next book for the event. You can find more information about the RIP event at these links :

 

Carl’s RIP VIII Challenge.

RIP VIII Review site.

 

Are you participating in Carl’s RIP event? What books have you read till now?

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After reading Tabitha Suzuma’s ‘Forbidden’, and then her ‘A Note of Madness’ and A Voice in the Distance’, I have been waiting for her next book ‘Hurt’ to be released. I was very excited when it was released a couple of weeks back. I got it last week and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Hurt By Tabitha Suzuma

‘Hurt’ starts with a very bleak scene. Mathéo gets up one day morning and realizes that he is still fully dressed. He also realizes that he has got cuts and bruises all over his body and something has happened in his room – it is totally trashed and everything there is broken and smashed. He can’t remember what happened the previous night. Or something in his mind suppresses that memory. He knows one thing though. Whatever happened the previous night has changed his life irrevocably and he will never been able to go back to his earlier carefree, happy life.

 

The story then goes back and tells us more about Mathéo. Mathéo is the British and European diving champion. He is expected to win a medal – hopefully the gold – at the next Olympics. He is young though and is still at school. He loves his girlfriend, the charming, beautiful Lola, deeply. Hugo and Isabel are Mathéo’s friends, with whom he hangs out at lunch time and whenever he has free time. Mathéo’s parents are busy professionals and don’t have time for their children from a day-to-day perspective, though they spend time with them whenever it is required. Mathéo has a brother Loïc, who is very young, very shy and who loves Mathéo very much. Lola’s father Jerry is a wonderful dad who has brought up Lola since she was a baby, after her mother passed away. Jerry has been both a father and a mother to Lola and he is also her best friend. This is the background to the events of the story. The final exams at school get over and the friends part for a few days. Mathéo goes to participate in the National Diving Championships at Brighton. And something happens there, which he can’t remember and which we don’t know about, which affects his life irrevocably. When he comes back he is a changed man and he finds it difficult to even talk to his friends and loved ones.

 

What happens to Mathéo? Does he remember what happened that night? Why does his mind suppress that memory – was what happened so shocking and terrible? How does he cope with his life in the aftermath? And what happens to his relationships with Lola, Hugo and Isabel? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

 

‘Hurt’ is sunny and delightful, and also dark and bleak in equal measure. (What is a Suzuma book without a little bit (or lots) of dark and bleak?) The happy scenes where Mathéo and Lola spend time together sometimes with each other, sometimes with their friends Hugo and Isabel and sometimes with Jerry, Lola’s dad, are some of the happy scenes in the book. One of the sunny scenes was where the ‘Horse and Hound’ magazine is mentioned – the magazine which was made famous by Hugh Grant’s character in ‘Notting Hill’. At other times Suzuma takes us into the mind of someone who has been through a traumatic experience and keeps us there and we alongwith Mathéo plumb the depths of despair. The bleak parts of the book are gripping as we struggle to understand what Mathéo is going through. When what happened on that fateful night is revealed, halfway through the book, it is shocking.  When the secret is revealed, towards the end, it is devastating. When we are reeling with the shock of the revelations and, like the characters in the book, are trying to pick the pieces, Tabitha Suzuma delivers the sucker punch. After having read ‘Forbidden’, one expects no less from Suzuma. But it hurts all the same, the ending breaks (‘shatters’ would be the better word here) one’s heart (Suzuma describes it in the book herself – “He…feels the acute pain of something breaking inside him – something permanent, something he knows will never, ever mend.”  That feels like an iceberg cracking, doesn’t it? That is exactly what happens to the reader.)

 

I don’t know any YA author like Suzuma, anyone who writes like this. Most YA books, even if they are on difficult topics – death, cancer, rape – mostly end with a ray of hope. But Suzuma is different. After reading a few books by her, one more or less expects a devastating ending and braces oneself, but it still doesn’t help. I think we can call her the Thomas Hardy of YA literature. I am not complaining though. I am a sucker for tragedies. My favourite Shakespeare play is ‘Hamlet’. I love the sunny comic ones like ‘The Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Twelfth Night’, but nothing can beat ‘Hamlet’ in my book. When I read the last lines today, even if it is for the umpteenth time – “Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” – it still makes me cry. Reading the last pages of ‘Hurt’ made me feel like that.

 

If you liked Suzuma’s ‘Forbidden’ you will love ‘Hurt’. I am surprised that she hasn’t won the Carnegie Medal yet. It is long overdue.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

Dusk is taking its time to fall, stretching out each remaining minute for as long as possible, in no hurry for the day to end. And Mathéo finds himself wishing it never had to, wishing this walk could last for ever.

 

Everything looks so normal, Mathéo thinks, and yet everything seems somehow alien too. It is almost as if he is witnessing this kind of scene for the very first time. He feels as if he is on the other side of something all those other people cannot understand. As if he is the only one who is aware of the folly of humankind : forced enthusiasm, people rushing this way and that, trying to edge ahead of each other in their urgent need to get someplace – the where hardly seems to matter. What is imperative is the need to keep going, to keep moving, to keep constantly busy – all a desperate attempt to kid themselves that they are a part of this world, that they are somehow important, that the choices they make and the actions they take and the places they go actually mean something.

 

There is no chronology inside his head. Instead, it is composed of myriad images which spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water, then vanish entirely, no more substantial than a dream.

 

Have you read ‘Hurt’ or other books by Tabitha Suzuma? What do you think about them?

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I discovered Elliot Perlman’s ‘Three Dollars’ through Lisa (from ANZ Lit Lovers) who recommended it and other books by Perlman highly. I hadn’t heard of Perlman before and so was quite excited to discover a new-to-me author. I read the book over the last week and finished it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Three Dollars By Elliot Perlman

The story told in ‘Three Dollars’ is narrated by Eddie. Eddie meets Amanda every nine and a half years. She was his childhood friend and they studied in the same school together. After Amanda and her family leave the neighbourhood to live elsewhere, Eddie meets her again after nine and a half years under different circumstances, in a different stage of his life. This continues for a few times and looks like a predictable accident (Eddie says this – “Somewhere in Princeton, or maybe Cambridge, there are some very dedicated people on the verge of discovering what Amanda Claremont was doing in my life, orbiting me every nine and a half years…comforted only by the knowledge that any physical system that exhibits periodic behaviour should be predictable”). The present time when he bumps into Amanda, Eddie is married to the beautiful and feisty Tanya, has a beautiful daughter Abby, but has just lost his job, might lose his house and has only three dollars left with him. How did things get to this state? The story attempts to answer that.

 

Though the book starts with these accidental meetings between Eddie and Amanda, this really acts as the frame to the real story (like in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, how the story of the captain who takes a ship and crew and goes to explore the Arctic is only the frame within which Victor Frankenstein’s story is told). The main story is about Eddie and his wife Tanya – how Eddie meets her at university, how they fall in love, how after the usual trials and tribulations and distractions caused by other potential lovers they get together and get married and have a beautiful daughter Abby and how they all love each other inspite of everyday niggles and problems. The story is also about the ‘80s and the ‘90s, about Thatcherism and Reaganomics, how because of de-regulation and globalization many people lost their jobs and the world became a more uncertain place to live in and how individuals who worked hard still lost everything because of forces beyond their control. How the general and the particular interact in the life of Eddie, Tanya and their family and how it ends up with them being unemployed with a net worth of three dollars and whether they are able to rise from that abyss form the rest of the story.

 

Though the main part of the story of ‘Three Dollars’ is set in the ‘90s, it feels eerily like the present day world and the issues it explores are very current and contemporary. We might have got used to hearing frequently about some of the things described in the book that they don’t feel like surprises anymore – like the de-regulation of many of the sectors of the economy, privatization of public sector companies, management consultants being hired to reduce costs, restructuring of organizations making a significant proportion of the employees redundant, job security and long-term (permanent) jobs having disappeared permanently, hardworking (and meticulously saving) people getting their net worth wiped out overnight – but it doesn’t make things any less scary. We have heard of history repeating itself but who would have known that what Elliot Perlman wrote about in 1998, when the book was first published, would get repeated more than once in a big way in the past fifteen years?

 

I love books with beautiful sentences, and ‘Three Dollars’ has an abundance of them. There were beautiful sentences like this :

 

She cried until the tears were no longer able to meet the demands of her sadness…

 

And this :

 

If she was not with him she was attached to the telephone in an approximation of the alternative.

 

Humorous sentences like this :

 

Engineering in all its guises was difficult enough but even more difficult was to be interested in it.

 

And this :

 

If something were not a cliché it had every chance of escaping my attention.

 

And this :

 

Being judgmental must surely be one of the most joyful activities known to the species and it is cruel that other animals are denied this pleasure.

 

And this :

 

The distance between what you say in a daydream and what you actually say to a superior at your place of work is proportional to the number of adults unsuccessfully seeking full-time employment.

 

And this :

 

On hot days the car begged to be put out of its misery and on cold days it behaved as if it had been.

 

And Dickensian sentences like this :

 

…watching the clock impart the neutrality of time as only a clock can, it occurred to me that it was not ridiculous to contemplate the predication of courage, or of its absence, with respect to somebody in the circumstances in which I found myself.

 

And this :

 

It had displayed to Tanya every minute the day had on offer but not one of them had recommended itself to her as a fine moment for rising.

 

And this :

 

I had thought that I knew her affliction and not merely the fact of it. It was no stranger to me. I understood it emotionally, empathetically. But I had only ever touched down at its airport. She was a citizen of its vast interior.

 

In many places, I felt that that author was struggling to decide whether to write in contemporary English or in Dickensian English. The final result is a beautiful combination of both which brings a lot of delight to readers.

 

I also loved the literary references in the book – Auden (who is fast becoming one of my favourite poets), Wordsworth, Sophocles, Arthur Miller (is he the favourite playwright of Australian readers?) – some of which are used to make important observations in the story.

 

I enjoyed reading Elliot Perlman’s ‘Three Dollars’. It is many things at the same time – a love story, a commentary on the contemporary world, a philosophical look at the current economic system and the story of one normal family which tries to survive in difficult circumstances. I would love to read more books by Perlman. I am also reading a book by an Aussie author after a long time. I hope that I don’t wait, like Eddie does for his next meeting with Amanda, but that I make my acquaintance with another Aussie writer soon.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

Somehow your perception of the number of people ahead of you in a queue is inversely proportional to the number of people behind you. If there are six people ahead of you in the queue and nobody behind you, you might consider leaving. If there are six people ahead of you and six people behind you, you will not leave the queue. You cannot. It would seem like a tragic waste of a precious resource even though, as you stood there in the queue, you would not be able to name the resource.

 

There are moments when you see something happening so slowly it still has not really happened before you have finished seeing it and yet you are completely unable to alter it, or are unable to intervene.

 

‘If you stay in bed for long enough the sheets and blankets take on your own smell…but not all of it, not the whole of your smell, just the saltiest part. From inside the bed it seems that the air around the bed takes on your saltiness too. After a while it’s hard to know whether the sheets and surrounding air are making you smell that way even more than you’re making them smell that way. I’d never thought you could smell salt but you can when it’s a person’s salt. It’s a strong and intoxicating saltiness.’

 

If you have ever loved your parents, if you have ever been able to talk with them, then all you really want from life is someone you can talk to when your parents die. That is the unarticulated goal at the back of your mind when you choose a partner, at least for your first marriage. You might think that you are looking for all those other things, shared interests, values, goals, shared folk memories, sexual compatibility, the same taste in taste. But all of this, if you are lucky enough to have been loved as a child, is just a smokescreen that you put up as you crawl between the trenches of your life, a smokescreen to hide the need to find just one person you can always talk to after your parents have died, one person whom you can tell your employment contract has not been renewed.

 

Have you read ‘Three Dollars’ or other books by Elliot Perlman? What do you think about them?

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After I read Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’ sometime back (and which I totally loved – it is one of my alltime favourites now), I thought I should read other books by her. If possible, all of them. When I searched for her works, I discovered that only two other works of hers have been translated into English, and that too only in the last couple of years. I felt sad when I discovered that, because I think all her works should be available in translation so that the rest of us can have the opportunity to discover what German readers have known all along for many decades – that Haushofer is one of the greats and her works are beautiful and profound. The first of Haushofer’s works which were translated recently was ‘The Loft’ and the second one was ‘Nowhere Ending Sky’. I got both of them and decided to read ‘The Loft’ first. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

The Loft By Marlen Haushofer

‘The Loft’ is the story of a 47 year old Austrian housewife, who is also the narrator of the story. (I somehow felt that her name was revealed in the story, but now when I think about it, I think we probably don’t know her name till the end. Another of those vintage Marlen Haushofer tricks – reveal the heart of the heroine without revealing her name J) Our heroine describes one week of her life. She describes the everyday things that she does – making breakfast and lunch and having them with her husband,

 

“Hubert comes home to eat whenever he can because he prefers sitting in silence by my side to sitting in silence anywhere else. I suppose you could look on it as a declaration of love.”

 

cleaning the windows, beating the carpet, dusting the bookshelves,

 

“We have too many books. No one will ever read them…Nothing is so bitter as the dust from old books…When the books are set out in orderly rows you hardly notice them, but the moment you start taking them down they turn into a mountain you can barely see over.”

 

receiving guests, meeting people whom she is obligated to meet (like her mother-in-law’s former maid who is in the nursing home or an old acquaintance with whom she has nothing in common but whom she meets because they spent some time together during the war), having conversations with her son when he visits them, having conversations with her daughter whenever she is at home, going grocery shopping, going to the hairdresser, listening to her husband while he shares stuff that happened at work, spending time in the evening watching TV with her husband because her husband likes her company, though she herself doesn’t enjoy that programme. Every chapter talks about a different aspect of everyday life. While reading it, we slowly sink into the everyday rhythm of our heroine and we become part of the story and we feel the warmth and the soothing quality of everyday routine.

 

During the course of this predictable, safe and calm week, there are, of course, a couple of surprises. (If there weren’t, then reading the story would be like listening to the chant of monks in a Buddhist temple. What is a story without some dissonance?) The first surprise is a nice one. We learn that our heroine is also an artist. So whenever she has time after she has completed her household tasks – either after finishing lunch and cleaning the kitchen or after dinner when her husband is not watching TV but is reading and she has some time before going to bed – our heroine goes to the loft, which is her sanctuary. Even her husband cannot come there without her permission. In the loft, our heroine practises her secret art. She paints. She likes drawing insects, reptiles and birds. She is good at it. When she was younger, she used to draw illustrations for books. She doesn’t do that anymore, but she paints for her own satisfaction. Her dream is to one day paint the perfect bird. In her own words,

 

There is still one thing for me to cling to : namely, the hope that one day I will draw a bird that is not completely alone in the world. This will show clearly by the way it holds its head, or the way its little claws are placed, or simply by the colour of its feathers. This bird is asleep somewhere inside me, and all I have to do is wake it up. It is a task I must accomplish on my own…

 

So far so good. Life is boring and beautiful. But then something happens. On a Monday (the second day of the story), our heroine receives a yellow coloured package. Inside it are papers which look like journal entries. There is no accompanying letter or note. We, the readers, are puzzled and wonder whose journal entries they are. We also wonder who sent it and why. Our heroine doesn’t keep us in suspense for long. She reveals that they are from her own journal from her younger days. A journal she thought that she had lost. A journal she wrote when she was separated from her husband for a couple of years. But even she is not able to tell us who sent the package and why. We start wondering why our heroine was separated from her husband. There seems to be a secret there. Something which is probably not so nice. Our heroine reveals what that is. After this point the story keeps shifting alternately between the present and the past, while a new yellow package arrives everyday carrying more pages containing more journal entries from the past. The present story is narrated by our heroine, while the past is revealed through the journal entries.

 

(Note : The next two paragraphs might be a little spoiler-ish and so please be forewarned.)

 

While reading the journal entries, we learn that during her younger days, a few years after her marriage, when her son was still young and her daughter was not yet born, our heroine suddenly becomes deaf. The doctors say that it is a psychological thing and cannot be treated with medicines. Our heroine’s happy life is suddenly disrupted in a rude way. For some reason, our heroine and her husband decide that she will live in a cottage in the mountains until she recovers her hearing. A gamekeeper who lives nearby will take care of her everyday needs like buying provisions. While living in the mountains, our heroine takes long walks in the evening. One day she discovers a strange cottage and a strange man sitting in front of it. He tries talking to her, but she tells him that she is deaf. They have a brief conversation by writing notes to each other. The strange man is very happy to see our heroine. After they meet up for a few times, during which time they have coffee or lemonade together and are quiet or exchange a few words through their notes, one day the strange man asks our heroine (through notes) whether she can come everyday and he would like to talk to her aloud and he would pay her for that. It looks clearly that he wants to talk about something deep in his heart, something he can’t tell anyone. Maybe it is about a crime or atrocity he committed. Maybe it is about strong feelings he has on something which he can’t really share with anyone else. The fact that our heroine is deaf makes him realize that he can open his heart out to her without her judging him. He probably thinks that speaking aloud will make him feel better by lightening the burden in his heart. Our heroine takes pity on him and agrees to his request. She refuses to take his money though. These two solitary characters start meeting everyday. The strange man seems to talk loudly. Half of the time it looks like he is screaming. His face reddens with emotion when he speaks and his hands move in violent gestures. After a while it is difficult for our heroine to watch his hands – they look terrible. She can’t hear what the man says and what terrible truths he is revealing. Then one day the man tells her that he wants to leave the place and asks her if she wants to come with him. By that time, our heroine has lost all hope of regaining her hearing.

 

What does our heroine do? Does she say ‘Yes’ to this strange man? Given the fact that our heroine is back with her family, what happened in the meanwhile? It also looks like our heroine can hear well now. What traumatic event happened which helped her gain her hearing? Is she finally able to paint the perfect bird that she dreams about? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

 

I liked ‘The Loft’ very much. It is vintage Marlen Haushofer and has all the elements which Haushofer fans have come to expect of her – a forty-something year old unnamed heroine who narrates the story, heartwarming prose enveloping the reader in its warmth, dialogue being mostly absent, descriptions of everyday activities revealing the beauty in them, insightful passages sneaked into these everyday scenes. The book captivated me with its first lines :

 

“From our bedroom window we can see a tree that we never seem to be able to agree about. Hubert says it’s an acacia…In old fashioned novels, where words are given their just currency, their scent is described as sweet and intoxicating, and so it is – sweet and intoxicating – only it is no longer possible to say so using these words. But never mind, it’ll go on being sweet and intoxicating so long as there’s one nose left in the world able to smell it.

 

and refused to let go off me till its last. It revealed the beauty of everyday things and also showed how it all can change in the blink of an eye. It also showed how we can find joy sometimes in everyday things and at other times in the strangest of places.

 

I can’t resist comparing ‘The Loft’ with ‘The Wall’, of course. It is a hard thing to do. Because ‘The Wall’ is a masterpiece. Every writer dreams of writing one book like that. Most aren’t able to pull it off, though they get critical acclaim and win fame and fortune and glory. But when they are able to pull it off and create a masterpiece like that, the rest of their work pales in comparison. It is a case of ‘Be careful what you wish for’. It is sad. Having said that, I should also say that ‘The Loft’ doesn’t pale in comparison. It is able to hold its own. It has all the vintage Haushoferian elements, but it is also different from ‘The Wall’. There are more characters here, the world the story is set in is our own, the main characters look like us and do everyday things like us and our dear Marlen uses everyday elements and scenes to create beauty and art. If you like ‘The Wall’ and enjoyed Haushofer’s style, you will like this too.

 

I have just one complaint about the book, though. I wish there was an introduction – by the translator or by someone well versed in Austrian literature and Marlen Haushofer’s works – which talked about Marlen Haushofer’s life and her work and her place in Austrian literature. That essay would have been very informative and enlightening and I would have loved reading it. If this was not possible, maybe the publishers could have got an essay on this topic written by an Austrian / German critic translated into English. I think that will enrich the reading experience. I hope they do it in a future edition.

 

I have to say one more thing. The description of the book on the back cover has this sentence – “‘The Loft’…explores…the discord of Austrian society in the aftermath of Nazism.” When I read that first, before I read the book, I didn’t think too much about it. After finishing the book, I read that again, and I couldn’t help laughing. The reason was this. There are places in the story where there are some hints. For example the heroine tells us that her husband was in the army during the war (the war probably being the Second World War and the army being the Austrian army and hence there is a Nazi connection there). Also, we don’t know what the strange man shouts about angrily when he talks to the heroine. It could be about war atrocities he had committed. It could also be about unspeakable personal things he had done. It could also be just his anger towards the world. I am not going to tell you what it is – you should read the story to find out. But beyond some minor references, the story is clearly not about the aftermath of Nazism in Austria. The story is about the everyday life of a normal housewife who has a secret past and how that past suddenly sneaks into her present life and disturbs her harmony. Sometimes a rose is just a rose and the colour blue is just the colour blue. I don’t know why every novel written in German set in a particular period should be about the aftermath of Nazism (or about Nazism or about the advent of Nazism). There are beautiful contemplative novels on everyday life written in German. There are also love stories, crime fiction, YA fiction and fiction of every other variety and hue written in German. Please, publishers and critics, don’t reduce German literature (and by this I mean books written in German, which includes German, Austrian, Swiss books and books written in German by writers from other countries) to just one thing. It is a much vaster ocean than that.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

Why the idea of natural causes should reassure us, when the things they cause are either evil or painful or senseless or all three, I fail to understand. What is there to be reassured about? A friendly ghost scares us far worse than a horrible live person, and that is absurd. This yearning for natural explanations must spring from our own profound human stupidity.

 

Gradually the Baroness’s voice transformed itself into the murmuring of the sea with an occasional breaking of a wave against the shore.

 

I hate that alarm…I am convinced this wretched thing is slowly killing us – a fraction every day. Merely waiting for it to start ringing is in itself a torment…Before the day can slip noiselessly into the room it is shattered to pieces by this vulgar rattling noise.

 

When she dies, where will all the hatred go, I wonder? Will it die with her? I doubt it; most likely it will stay in the room and then slowly filter through the chinks in the windowpanes to join the big cloud of hatred that hangs over the city permanently.

 

A mole cricket is not wicked, nor is it nightmarish. Its brown colouring isn’t ugly, it is the colour of the earth. It is a poor little plump insect that is hated and persecuted because it happens to feed off roots and unwittingly gets in mankind’s way. It looked lost and bewildered – a creature that cannot understand why it is hated and persecuted.

 

Nothing is so difficult as probing one’s own intentions. I get sudden insights now and again but introspection gets me nowhere. I either know or I don’t. My thoughts are like a flock of birds, winging around all over the place. Sometimes a wing grazes me lightly and awakens things inside me that until then have been deep asleep – pictures that I can’t summon up myself but that are suddenly there, blazing with colour. In that instant I know things I’ve never known before. And then I forget them again.

 

Every time I cough or blow my nose he gives a faint, defeated sigh. There is nothing worse than having to be discreet about blowing your nose – as a method it simply doesn’t work. After each sigh I hate him for a couple of minutes. Why on earth doesn’t he just let me go up to the loft on my own and do to my nose whatever I like? At the very least, he should omit the sighing. These sighs are illogical, worse, they are blackmail; they make me feel guilty when there is no cause for guilt whatsoever.

 

The laurel is flowering. I don’t pick any because I’m afraid the plant might cry out in pain and I wouldn’t hear it. True, I don’t remember ever hearing laurel cry out, but everything is possible, and every sound is possible to a person who cannot hear.

 

Have you read Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Loft’ or other books by her? What do you think about them?

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