Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Déry

“The Dog adopted the Ancsas in the spring of  1948 …”

The Ancsas were a childless couple in their early fifties, living in the suburbs of Budapest.

The country was laid low by the War, and now it has a new Communist government promising a brighter future.

Mr Ancsa is an engineer posted to Budapest. He wants to move to an apartment in the city, but one cannot be found and so he and his wife have had to settle for rooms in the suburbs.

It really wasn’t the time to take on a dog but Niki, a terrier of indeterminate breed, insinuated herself into their hearts and then their home.

A  city apartment was eventually found and the country moved, taking Niki with them. But things went wrong. Mr Ancsa, inadvertently, upset some powerful people and he was imprisoned. For five long years Mrs Ancsa and Niki only had each other. Both pined.

Finally Mr Ancsa came home …

This is a simple downbeat story. Never sentimental, but always moving.

It is beautifully written and the story well told. It words so well because human and canine stories are perfectly balanced, and because Déry conveys the story of the dog so well. I can’t work out quite how he does it, but succeeds to painting a perfect portrait of Niki without presuming to think for her and without assuming human characteristics.

It really is a perfect portrait. My own terrier is asleep at my feet and so many things reminded me of her. The prized possession of a rubber ball, destroyed but still cherished until the final fragment is gone. The bracing of the body and the incredible force that a small animal can place on a lead when it doesn’t want to go. The anxious demeanour when a family member does not appear at the usual time. I could go on, but you probably get the idea. The big things and the small things all rang true.

The stories of an ordinary couple and an ordinary dog come together to make an extraordinary story.

The underlying themes are love, kindness, and the patience and endurance that brings. And there is more than that: with great subtlety, Déry compares the position  of a domestic animal, not fully in control of its life and not understanding how and why some things are happening, with the position of the humans that share its home.

Niki’s story is thought-provoking and very readable.

A fine addition to the NYRB list.

Translated by Georges Szirtes

Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati

Now, how do I explain this one? It’s not my usual sort of book at all. But that’s the thing about loving a publisher – sometimes you’re inspired to buy something quite extraordinary.

Not, you understand, that I have anything against Italian graphic novels from the 1960s!

Poem Strip is a remarkable retelling of the classical tale of Orpheus and Euridyce.

The story opens in Milan:

“On Via Saterna in the old city there’s a house with a large garden that appears to have been abandoned years ago…”

Opposite that house is the home of an old, aristocratic family. Orph, the son of the house, has broken with tradition: he is a wildly successful rock star.

One day as he watches the world going by from his window he sees Eura, the love of his life, enter the the house across the street through a door he has never seen before.

Unthinking, he follows her: Orph enters the underworld. Sex and death hang heavy in the air, and Orph must fight temptation and face his worst fears as he seeks his lost love.

And he would have to sing for his life.

“Death, oh death
Gift of a wise god
All the charms of this world
Come from you
Even love.”

Poem Strip is a wonderful mixture of gothic, pop art, noir and avant garde.

The images are varied and striking; the words are simple but effective.

The overall effect was deeply unsettling and utterly compelling at the same time: I read Poem Strip in a single sitting and it has left a very firm impression.

And I’m quite sure that there are things that I missed, more layers that a second reading might reveal.

A fine addition to the NYRB list.

Translated by Marina Harrs

….. hosted at Coffeespoons and the Literary Stew.

In November I shall be ……

….. getting back into a proper blogging routine after dipping my toe back into the water in October.

There are lot of books that I really must write about, and a couple of things happening that I know will add more wonderful titles to that list.

First there’s …..

….. hosted at Coffeespoons and the Literary Stew.

The NYRB list is wonderful – one that I dare not look at too often for fear of buying far too many books – and the idea of a week to celebrate it is lovely.

Here are the books I have to hand that I might read:

    • The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford
    • Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
    • Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati
    • Victorine by Maude Phelps Hutchins
    • The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
    • Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sea by Patrick Hamilton
    • The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
    • A Month in the Country by J L Carr
    • Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford
    • Corrigan by Caroline Blackwood
    • Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler
    • Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang

I know I have a few books in my Virago Collection that have been published by NYRB too, but  I’m only counting books that I associate with NYRB first and foremost. Anything else would feel like cheating, and I’m spoiled for choice already!

And then there’s the November Novella Challenge, hosted once again by J.T. from Bibliofreak.

I loved this last year and I’m so pleased that it’s happening again. I love those little books that are more than a short story but not quite a full blown novel.

Here are the books that might fit this challenge that I’ve pulled from my shelves and ordered in from the library:

    • The Devil’s Pool by George Sand
    • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
    • Beside The Sea by Veronique Olmi
    • Seducers in Ecuador and the Heir by Vita Sackville-West
    • Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler
    • The Stepdaughter by Caroline Blackwood
    • Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal
    • Sitting in the Club-Car Drinking Rum & Karma-Kola by Paulette Giles
    • The Rector and the Doctor’s Family by Mrs Oliphant
    • Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
    • The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez

I won’t have time to get to them all – and I have to admit that a few were on last years list and are still waiting. Are there any you can particularly recommend I wonder?

The Child by Jules Vallès

“A great nineteenth-century novel translated into English for the first time.”

So says the back cover of this book, and I have to agree.

I was gripped even from the dedication.

“I dedicate this book all those who were bored stiff at school or reduced to tears at home, who in childhood were bullied by their teachers or thrashed by their parents.”

Jacques, the young hero is thrashed by his parents in the very first chapter. They are unhappy people, concerned only with their social status and advancement, and with no love, no empathy at all for their young son.

I worried that this would be a depressing and distressing read. And at times it was, but it was also something special indeed.

A neighbour saw what was happening and came to the aid of young Jacques. She realised that making a fuss would not help and so she offered to beat the child to save his mother the trouble. But instead of beating him she clapped her hand while he yelled, and gave him candy.

And so Jacques’ spirit was not broken.

His story went on, not with great drama but through the things – day-to-day routine, trips, family events and, of course, school – that make up a childhood.

Like so many children, before and since, Jacques had a strong survival instinct, and he only realised in time that his situation was not usual. He carried on.

He didn’t look to his parents, he looked out at the world, observing everything he saw so closely.

And his perspective is beautifully realised – idiosyncratic, sometimes witty, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and always utterly believable.

Jacques never received approval from his parents, and so he didn’t look for it from others. Insubordination and independence came to him quite naturally. Particularly at school, which he didn’t care for at all!

I was sorry to have to part company with Jacques when he reached adulthood.

But I won’t forget him, and I’m hoping that the two sequels to this book are translated into English one day. If they aren’t I’m going to have to think about brushing up my French!

But first I must thank NYRB for this translation and The Spotlight Series for encouraging me to pluck this volume from the shelf.

The Child isn’t an easy book to write about, but it is one that you really should read.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

great-granny-webster

The signs were there to suggest that this would be a good book. It was nominated for the Booker Prize and it has recently been reissued as a NYRB Classic. And “Great Granny Webster” is said to be based, at least in part, on Caroline Blackwood’s own life and family.

Caroline Blackwood was born into the Guinness family in 1931 and she moved among the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the Soho Bohemians of post-war England and the liberal intelligentsia of 1960s New York.

She was a respected writer, a noted beauty and a society star. But her marriages to three remarkable men – the painter Lucien Freud, the composer Israel Citkowitz and the poet Robert Lowell – were all troubled and she was plagued by alcoholism.

I’m afraid though that the book didn’t quite live up to the expectations that this background created.

At the start of the book our narrator is a 14 year old girl who has been sent to stay with her great grandmother to recuperate after an illness.

Great Granny Webster is an extraordinary creation. She lives in a large house on the outskirts of Brighton with only Richards, an elderly servant with an eye patch. There are no callers and the telephone never rings.

She is a woman takes no pleasure in life, dressing in black and spending her days sitting in a stiff backed chair in front of a fire that is never lit and going out only once a week to be driven up and down the seafront in a taxi.

(She brings the grandmother from the Giles’ cartoons that my father collected into my head, but I don’t think there is a link.)

But for all of this Great Granny Webster is intriguing and the book loses something when she leaves the stage.

As the years pass our still unnamed narrator learns more about her family.

Her Grandmother has been in an asylum for years. Great Granny Webster had her committed after she tried to kill her grandson at his christening, claiming that he had bad blood. Before that had she reigned over her husband’s Irish estate, in a style that was idiosyncratic to say the least.

And she meets her Aunt Lavinia, a much-married socialite who tells her the story of her life. Aunt Lavinia is vivacious, hard-drinking and fun loving, but she has made a number of suicide attempts. Eventually she succeeds.

All of this is reported in a wonderfully matter-of-fact style and with just enough detail to bring it to life. The humour is black but the core of this novel is tragic.

The problem though is that nothing is resolved. Did Great Granny Webster make her family what they became, or did she retreat, unable to deal with their problems?
And what happened to the rest of the family? I don’t know!

And nothing comes together, the story just ends, fifteen years after it started with only the narrator and Richard’s in attendance at Great Granny Webster’s funeral.

This was interesting to read, but as a book it felt unresolved and unfinished. With just over a hundred pages I felt that I was reading sketches for a bigger book. And that book could have been great …..