A Swedish classic of psychological drama.
Swedish novelist Stig Dagerman's A Moth to the Flame (1948) opens with a funeral. Twenty-year-old Bengt's mother, Alma, is to be buried. It's a time of guilt, anger and mixed emotions as the family remembers the often neglected Alma. Bengt tries to cope with the loss of his mother, and he has his sympathetic and gentle fiancée, Berit, to help. But things take a dark turn when he discovers that his father, Knut, has been seeing another woman, Gun, a cashier at the local theatre. Bengt becomes both attracted to and repulsed by Gun. His emotions bounce violently between love and hate, keeping him in a state of permanent, unresolved distress.
Stig Dagerman wrote a series of highly regarded novels in his early twenties, suddenly stopped writing, and five years later tragically committed suicide at the age of thirty-one. A Moth to the Flame, a work of staggering emotional maturity, was published when the author was in his mid twenties. It's a brooding, dreamlike work of psychological interiors. The novel has no real centre of gravity and rather floats like a miasma, drenched in Freudian gloom, with its themes of guilt, desire and traumatic family relationships. The deeply conflicted Bengt has much in common with Shakepeare's Hamlet as he tries to avenge his mother's memory but is unable to set out on any definite course.
A mini masterpiece from a gifted writer who died too young.
A Moth to the Flame, by Stig Dagerman. Penguin Classics. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Peter Polites second novel is a witty exploration of class, race, sex and money, firmly set in gay Sydney.
Pano is slumming it, his work as a poet barely making an income. When he sees an advertisement on a gay website, he moves in with Kane, an IT specialist. The designer house, in upwardly mobile Pemulwuy, is everything he's ever aspired to. When Pano and Kane fall into bed together, Pano almost allows himself the fiction they are a happy couple. Kane is more interested in a proposed Albanian mosque, to be built across the road. He talks Pano into a plot to discredit the mosque. Meanwhile, Pano has taken on work as a ghostwriter for a dodgy property developer. Can Pano maintain this middle-class facade, or will it all come undone?
Peter Polites' second novel is a dry, witty exploration of class, race, sex and money, firmly set in Sydney and with a cast of mainly gay men. The Pillars drips with an irony worthy of Jean Genet and Joe Orton. One of its main concerns is artifice and the presentation of self. Everything – clothes, décor, cosmetics – are described in mesmerising detail, working up a picture of a superficial, branded world and its deluded denizens.
An astute work of social observation that entertains with a seductive, sly humour.
The Pillars, by Peter Polites. Hachette Australia. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Irina Odoevtseva fled Russia soon after the 1917 Revolution and lived in Germany, then France, not returning to her homeland until 1987. She was a poet, memoirist and novelist. Isolde, published in 1929, was her second novel. It has now been translated into English for the first time.
Pretty, doll-like Liza lives in Biarritz, a seaside playground for the rich on the coast of France. She is fourteen-years-old and is much sought after by other boys. One day on the beach she meets Cromwell, an English lad who is a few years older than her. Cromwell professes undying love for Liza, calls her his “Isolde”, and is quickly drawn into her group, which includes her older brother, Antonio, and friend Odette. This young group of carefree youths live the fast life, dining out at restaurants, drinking and generally seeking pleasure. The truth of the matter, however, is that they are all short on money, or if they have money, then it is soon enough running out. The group sponges off Cromwell, while Liza, an innocent, free spirit, talks about meeting up with Andrei, a former boyfriend.
Everyone is riding an emotional merry-go-round, even Liza's mother, Natasha. She has a needy boyfriend, Bunny, who has drained his bank account for her and even started embezzling money. The slavish Bunny is not enough for Natasha, and she takes up with Boris, who is emotionally abusive.
Everything spins faster and faster for this group of children and adults. Pleasure, money, indulgence, fast cars, sex. But as the money runs out and the discarded relationships pile up, everything seems on a crash course for disaster.
Isolde caused a scandal in its day, with its air of delicious decadence and beautiful yet tainted youth. Odoevtseva captivates with her descriptions of the beautiful Liza, her trilling laughter, languid afternoons and breezy, uncomplicated character. The scene in Biarritz is painted as an enticing, voluptuaries’ playground. It’s hard not to be seduced. But as the novel progresses, one feels the hangover of such excesses, until such a dissolute lifestyle catches up with everyone. Ultimately Isolde is a moral story. Living for pleasure, on other people's money, with no consideration for the feelings of others, is the fastest route to hell.
Odoevtseva writes in a light, breezy tone, skilfully weaving into her spirited narrative an impending sense of dread, decay and doom. What a treat for English readers to have this long ignored Russian classic now available in translation.
Isolde, by Irina Odoevtseva. Published by Pushkin. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A Syrian couple flee their country for asylum in London after losing their son, Sami, in a bomb attack.
Nuri and Afra have a seven-year-old son, Sami. They live in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Nuri works as a beekeeper with his cousin, Mustafa. Afra is a visual artist. As civil war tears the country apart, the young family find their lives more and more at risk. A bomb blinds Afra and Sami, their son, is killed. Staying in Syria becomes impossible when Nuri's life is threatened: he must join a militia and start killing. Nuri and Afra make hasty plans to leave, a journey that will take them through Turkey and Greece until they arrive in England, where Mustafa has successfully sought asylum.
Christy Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees and was raised in London. She has worked in Athens with refugees fleeing Syria and it is the stories of these people that she has fashioned into a moving story of trauma, exile and grief. Each chapter is divided into two parts, a present tense where Nuri narrates the couple's life in London as they apply for asylum, and a past tense which describes the dangerous journey from Syria. As the novel progresses chapter by chapter the past catches up with the present, and the more shocking aspects of the journey are revealed.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a skilfully crafted novel that works both as an enjoyable aesthetic experience and a testament to the suffering of those who must leave home, family and country for a future that only promises uncertainty. The story contains many shocking scenes and incidents, especially concerning villainous people smugglers, that must be drawn from real life experience.
Read this book to understand the plight of asylum seekers the world over, and be humbled by it.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christy Lefteri. Published by Zaffre. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Pajtim Statovci's second novel, Crossing, recently translated into English by David Hackson, concentrates on themes of loss, displacement and identity.
Bujar is a young Albanian dealing with an array of problems, personal and political. His homeland, Albania, is increasingly unstable and he feels himself oscillating between being male and female, gay and straight. His best friend, Agim, is feminine, highly intelligent and likes to dress in women’s clothes. The two boys – they are in their mid-teens – decide that there is no place for them in Albania and decide to flee. They spend much time tramping around Tirana, the country’s capital, until they save enough money to travel to Western Europe.
The story takes place along three different timelines and mostly focuses on Bujar. We see him at fourteen in Albania and in his early twenties when living in countries such as Spain, Germany and Italy. He also spends time in New York. The final part of the novel, when Bujar is in his late twenties, sees him in Finland. Throughout his travels Bujar always feels displaced, never quite fitting in, a constant outsider who dreads being asked the question, “Where are you from?” Shame is a recurring emotion, as Bujar feels himself to be both spiritually and physically homeless.
Many of the themes Pajtim Statovci addressed in his debut novel, My Cat Yugoslavia, are reprised here. The political and social history of the Balkans during the 1990s; the nature of being a displaced person; difficult family relationships exacerbated by war; and the terrible loneliness and despair that can result from a diverse gender and sexuality.
Pajtim Statovci is gifted at writing a spirited narrative that keeps the reader always engaged, helped by the fact that his writing is based on personal experiences. There’s no doubting the authenticity of Bujar’s narrative. Statovci also has a wonderfully surreal, even poetic, imagination. There are some beautiful set pieces, especially in the final pages where Bujar dreamily imagines his lover as a horse.
Crossing is often melancholy and haunting, a deeply affecting story of people lost and estranged in the world.
Crossing, by Pajtim Statovci. Published by Pushkin Press. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Finnish-Kosovan author Pajtim Statovci's debut, My Cat Yugoslavia, mixes surreal invention with late twentieth century history to examine the trauma of war and displacement.
Bekim is a young man born to Albanian parents. He has four other siblings, three sisters and one brother. When war breaks out in the early 1990s, the family must flee their home in Kosovo. Bajram, the socially conservative father, considers moving to America or Australia, but finally settles on Finland. Life in Finland, an advanced democracy with a first class economy, turns out to be a place hostile to foreigners. While Bajram and his wife Emine watch the news, with its daily stories of their country being ripped apart by war, their children find their own identities torn. Neither Finnish or Albanian, they don't fit in anywhere and drift emotionally from their parents.
Pajtim Statovci's debut novel My Cat Yugoslavia (translated by David Hackston) runs two parallel stories, of mother and son. First the reader is introduced to Bekim. He's gay, somewhat emotionally detached and is struggling to form a permanent relationship. For company, he buys a pet boa constrictor, a muscular creature that is nonetheless quite placid. Later, in a bar he meets a cat that wears human clothes and talks. He invites the cat back to his flat, but discovers the cat is xenophobic and homophobic.
The second story is a history of his mother, Emine, from the time she marries as a teenager to when her children are finally grown, covering the time span from 1980 – 2008. She endures a horrible “traditional” marriage, is beaten and treated like a slave rather than a wife. Despite these hardships, she sometimes feels pity for her husband and can understand his grief in losing his country.
There is much to enjoy in this fine debut. Pajtim Statovci writes an urgent and compelling prose that is hard to put down. His subject matter – loss, displacement, generational trauma – comes from a place of personal experience, giving his story authenticity (Statovci's family fled Kosovo in the early nineties).
For those who have forgotten the Balkan Wars, My Cat Yugoslavia is a stark reminder of the atrocities suffered during those years. Statovci also adds surrealistic features (mysterious cats and laid back snakes), giving his story a pleasantly beguiling aspect.
A fascinating debut and an author to watch.
My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci. Published by Pushkin Press. RRP: $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A little known Russian master of the short story.
Nikolai Leskov began his writing career as a journalist, was a contemporary of such Russian greats as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and started publishing fiction in 1862. He traveled widely around his homeland of Russia and was intimately acquainted with all levels of society, a knowledge that is reflected in his stories and novellas. He wrote several full length novels, but it is the shorter form in which he excelled.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, is a collection of Leskov’s best. The stories in large part describe 19th century Russian life, although at break neck speed. There’s never a dull moment. Socially, the focus is on the clergy, the military, tradesmen, artisans and the many roles women play. In one of Leskov’s most famous stories, "The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk", bored housewife Katerina takes up with the farmhand Sergei and undertakes several murders, allowing her to seize control of her husband’s considerable estate. While it is a breathtaking story of unrepentant wickedness, it also highlights women's expected role as submissive servants to house and husband. Other stories exemplify a society that is deeply superstitious, with a runaway imagination. “The Spook”, an engaging story about a poor social outcast living on the fringe of town, shows how the misunderstood can find themselves turned into an ogre and scapegoat for anything that goes wrong.
The great thing about Leskov’s short stories are their sheer energy and verve. Everything travels at a rate of knots, with snappy dialogue and a host of buoyant characters. There’s much humour and humanity here, too. Leskov takes pity and forgives the human condition, while also exploiting it ruthlessly for entertainment value. These stories are a joy to read, like nothing you’ve ever read before, and like all great literature, one reading will never be enough.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, by Nikolai Leskov. Published by Vintage Classics. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Dostoevsky wrote The Eternal Husband between two of his major works,The Idiot and The Devils. It's a lesser known novel that should not be overlooked.
The Eternal Husband opens with the rich landowner Velchaninov fretting over a legal case concerning an estate. He's a hypochondriac, a flighty, nervous type who is haunted by memories from his past. Velchaninov tries to rise above his personal demons, giving himself pep talks that he is managing, even overcoming his problems. But still, the scenes of his past keep returning in his mind's eye, many of them shameful. If only he could put these ghosts away and enjoy his status as a respected landowner.
Making matters worse is the appearance of a strange man. This unknown man has an uncanny habit of reappearing again and again. Velchaninov almost feels that he is being taunted, that the flickering, inquisitive eyes of the stranger are indeed a reproach, even a challenge. Velchaninov becomes utterly paranoid until things build to a climax. The man hovers outside his lodgings. Unable to stand the suspense any longer, Velchaninov opens the door. They stand face to face, but something strange happens. Velchaninov recognises the man. He is Trusotsky. The two men were friends a decade ago. A complicating factor is Velchaninov's relationship with Trusotsky's wife, Natalya – they were having an affair. Natalya has now passed away, leaving only a daughter, Liza, who may be Velchaninov's. Does Trusotsky know? Is Liza Velchaninov's daughter?
The psychological game of cat-and-mouse played out in The Eternal Husbandreads like an absurdist farce. Both main characters, Velchaninov and Trusotsky, are highly strung and continually dance around each other, keeping their cards close to their chests, trying to outmanoeuvre each other.
What the theme of the novel is remains a mystery, however Dostoevsky excels at bringing to life our changeable, inconsistent natures, forever haunted by bad memories, paranoia and fevered daydreams. Dostoevsky doesn't paint these human failings as tragic, but rather as comic. There's an operatic, almost campy madness to most of the narrative. In one memorable scene Trusotsky raves deliriously to Velchaninov about how much he admires him, and then kisses him on the hand. Moments later Trusotsky demands Velchaninov kiss him back (“do kiss me!”), which he does, on the lips.
A highly accomplished, utterly original portrait of the human psyche in its everyday, disordered state.
The Eternal Husband, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Published by Alma Classics. $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
R.W.R. McDonald's brilliant debut mixes murder and mayhem with its own special brand of fabulousness.
Eleven-year-old Tippy Chan's mother has won a holiday, a two week cruise. Enter babysitters Uncle Pike and his new boyfriend, Devon. Fabulous, fun and creative, they have descended on the New Zealand town of Riverstone. Uncle Pike fled Riverstone as a teenager and found refuge in gay Sydney. Now he's back with a vengeance.
Tippy and Uncle Pike share a love of Nancy Drew novels. When a grisly murder happens in the small town – Tippy's teacher is found dead, headless – Tippy and Uncle Pike form The Nancys, a crime solving club inspired by Nancy Drew. Their sleuthing opens up a new side of Riverstone: it turns out many of the locals are not what they seem and some of Tippy's closest relationships are forever changed once the real murderer is discovered.
R.W.R McDonald's The Nancys mixes brilliant comic writing with a carefully plotted whodunnit that keeps you guessing until the very last page. The cast of small town characters is vividly drawn and true to life – there's many an eccentric or annoying type you'll recognise in these pages. Most of all, it's Tippy's wry, self-deprecatory narration that wins the show. A truly original debut that charms from the first page to the last.
The Nancys, by R.W.R. McDonald. Published by Allen & Unwin. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Elizabeth Gilbert sets her new novel in New York's theatre world of the 1940s, creating a sparkling, cocktail fizz of a book.
It’s 1940. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has left home after a lacklustre performance at Vassar College to live with her flamboyant Aunt Peg in New York. Peg runs a down-at-heel theatre called the Lily Playhouse, home to some rather cheesy musicals. The theatre's troops – dancers, musicians, writers, actors, theatre managers – live on site, making for a cosy, bohemian ambience.
Vivian throws herself into theatre life and soon makes friends with actress Celia Ray. The two enjoy New York’s night life and have various sexual adventures, not to mention the odd misadventure. When Aunt Peg’s estranged husband turns up on the scene, he comes up with the idea for a show that is eventually called City of Girls. The theatre imports the posh British actress Edna Parker Watson and the show ends up being a hit, lifting the flailing Lily Playhouse out of trouble and putting it on a good financial footing.
Then disaster strikes. Vivian unwittingly becomes involved in a scandal and must get her disapproving brother to bail her out. She experiences shame and humiliation, and is sent packing home.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s follow-up to The Signature of All Things is a light, frothy affair, almost a feel good story. The bulk of the novel is full of humour, with a well rounded cast: chancers, rogues, bright-young-things, frumpy lesbians and street wise, cocksure young men. Gilbert writes with a joy and elan which is infectious. The theme of the novel is how we deal with shame and the inevitable mistakes we all make. Vivian learns, with the painful passage of time, that everyone of us carries a dark, secret history, and that we must forgive ourselves, grow, and ultimately become better people.
A small caveat: the story is perhaps a bit long, with narrator Vivian speeding through three decades in the last hundred or so pages, giving the novel a bit of a lopsided feel. Otherwise, a highly enjoyable, cocktail fizz of a book that Gilbert fans will lap up.
City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Published by Bloomsbury. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books