Tag Archives: book set in 1960s

Book Review: The Shrouded Woman by María Luisa Bombal

7 Aug

In July I read a wonderful short novel “The Shrouded Woman” (La amortajada) by a Chilean author María Luisa Bombal (1910-1980) which was originally published in 1938. It was suggested to me by someone, and I am infinitely glad that I finally sat down and read it because it was a stunning book and I can now recommend it to you all! It’s short and easy to read, direct and full of feelings, but it’s truly something else, both in the matter of topic and the writing style.

Claude Monet, Camille Monet on her deathbed, 1879

“And after it had gotten dark, her eyes opened. But just a little, very little. It was as if she wanted to look, while she was hidden behind her long eyelashes. At the flame of the tall candles that leaned over to keep watch on her, and to observe the cleanness and transparency of the border of the eye that death had not been able to cast a pall over. Respectfully dazzled, they leaned over, not knowing that She was able to see them. Because, in fact, She could both see and feel.

And that is how she looked, motionless, lying face up on the spacious bed now covered with embroidered sheets that were scented with lavender—that were always kept under lock and key—and she is wrapped in that white satin robe that always made her look so graceful.”

The story is told in the first person and the narrator is a beautiful dead woman Ana María. Despite being dead, she can still feel, think and see, and she begins by describing where she is lying and who are the people who are coming to see her for the last time. Little by little, she starts reminiscing about her life; her first love with a local boy Ricardo who both intimidated her and aroused passion in her, then her best friend Fernando who secretly adored her, and lastly she is contemplating about her disastrous marriage with Antonio. The mood of the novel feels very intimate, personal and it is very emotional as well. I think Bombal was very good at capturing the state of mind and thoughts that a deceased person might have, it just feels so accurate and convincing. Now that her life is over and nothing can be done or undone, the chances are over and desires that remain cannot be fulfilled, it’s fascinating to see where Ana María’s thoughts turn to; to love, both the possibility of joy and the agonies of love, things that could have been done differently but is now too late. She regrets being cold to her husband because her coldness distinguished his initial love for her. She regrets being left by Ricardo whom she loved with all her youthful ardour and madness.

Death can teach us so much about life. It’s interesting to note how most of us spend our day to day life thinking about trivial things, little nuisances and unimportant problems, what’s the weather like, how’s the traffic, and yet none of that truly matters. Time is wasted on trivialities. Ana María on her death bed is not thinking about the windows that she wished to clean, but, alas, death has stopped her in that! Looking at her life in retrospective she only pays attention to the most important things so why not focus on what really matters while we are still alive. Why not try and live and love since we are already alive and have no choice but to walk the earth for a little while, till eternity swallows us again. In this way, I think the novel is very inspiring. But it is also chilling in other ways and sad because the life she is telling us about is – over. But while I, as a living person, am saddened by this, Ana María is ecstatic to finally be at peace. She is not filled with sadness or anger, she is resigned to her fate and she simply contemplates things, without clinging to them. All the longings that tormented her while she was alive have now disappeared, no tears and no hatred left. She seems purified by the experience of death and is almost happy as her coffin descends into earth. And in the end, she is waiting for a real death: “She had already suffered the death of the living. Now she wanted total immersion, the second death: the death of those who are dead.”

Picture by Laura Makabresku.

I particularly enjoyed Ana María vivid memories of her childhood, her first love and her teenage days because obviously I can relate to that. And now the quotes:

Since then, I lived waiting for the arrival of my tears. I waited for them like one waits for a storm on the hottest days of summer. And harsh word, a look that was too sweet, was enough for me to open the floodgate of tears.”

Now that it was spring, I hung my hammock between two hazel nut trees. I laid there for hours and hours. I did not know why the landscape, the things around me, all gave me so much pleasure, the enjoyment of feeling peaceful with the rising and falling dark mass of the forest quietly rising above the horizon like a monstrous wave about to rush forward, the flight of the doves whose coming and going made moving shadows on the book over my knees; the intermittent song of the sawmill—that sharp note, sharp and sweet like the buzzing of a beehive—that filled the air all the way to the houses while the afternoon was very translucent.

I was overwhelmed by the wild carnation odor of your kiss.

One impulse swallowed another. Soon I was longing to knit yellow wool and yearning for a field of sunflowers that I could enjoy looking at hour after hour.
Oh, to be able to sink my eyes into something yellow!
That is the way I was living, greedy for fragrances, for colors, for flavors.

That wind! The plaits of my hair were torn apart and began to curl around your neck. We had suddenly been swallowed up by the darkness and the silence, the eternal darkness and silence of the forest.

And she suddenly feels that she is now without even a single wrinkle, more pale, and beautiful than ever.

The sound of rain on the trees and the house soon causes her very to surrender herself, body and soul, to that feeling of well-being and melancholy into which the sound of rain always filled her on those long autumn nights.

Everyone was upset by the indifference with which I took my first communion. … To me God seemed so distant, and so severe.

Ana María’s vision of heaven when she was a child which horrified the priest:

“I would like it to be the same as earth is. I would like it to be like the farm in the spring, when all the rose bushes are flowering, and all the fields are green, and you can hear the cooing of doves during the afternoon… And I would especially like something there wasn’t on the farm: …I would like it if there were little deer that were not afraid and would come to eat out of my hand… And I would also like it if my cousin Ricardo was always with me, and they would give us permission to spend the night in the woods, there where the grass is as soft as velvet, right on the edge of the stream…”

Book Review: The Incorrigible Optimists Club by Jean-Michel Guenassia

23 Jun

A week ago I finished reading an astonishingly brilliant book called ‘The Incorrigible Optimists Club’ by Jean-Michel Guenassia. When I saw it in library, I disdainfully observed the title. I thought ‘optimists club, whatever, I ain’t gonna read that’… Pessimist Club would sound better to me. Still, I was intrigued and, after flipping through the pages, I knew I was holding in my hand a very special book indeed.

1960. Christer Strömholm, La Methode, Paris

Christer Strömholm, La Methode, Paris, 1960

The main character, Michel Marini, tells us about his life, starting from the celebration of his twelfth birthday in October 1959 all to way to July 1964. It has elements of bildungsroman; we witness the development of Michel’s hobbies, his discoveries of books by Camus and Kessel, films, music and first loves, but the book is so much more than that. Michel’s life starts changing after he starts visiting a Parisian bistro, also frequented by Joseph Kessel and Jean-Paul Sartre, and meets people from the other side of the Iron curtain who fled the Communist regime. These brave individuals, mostly Russians, Hungarians, Poles and Germans, are at the heart of ‘the optimists club’ – they are intellectuals who like playing chess and quarrelling, but above all, they are optimists despite their unfortunate material situations. They don’t have much money and they’ll never be fully integrated into French society. Igor, for example, was a doctor in Russia, but in Paris he drives a taxi because his diploma has no value there. Some found this to hard too bear, like Tibor, a Hungarian actor who decided to return to his homeland.

1960s Paris - Johan van der Keuken

Paris – Johan van der Keuken, 1960s

1965. Marianne Faithfull in Paris

Marianne Faithfull in Paris, 1965

Why I liked this book? Well, first of all, the plot is layered. You have bits about Michel’s struggles with maths at school and his enthusiasm for photography, then the stories from the other side of the Iron curtain and all sorts of interesting individuals, you have the Algerian war of independence, the beginnings or rock ‘n’ roll and New Wave films such as Godard’s Breathless (1960) with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. These events also show the generation gap between Michel and his comrades, and their parents and grandparents. The former promote individuality and freedom, while the latter stand for tradition and norms. Michel is sort of a misfit. I can imagine him on the streets of Paris during the Student protests of 1968, he seems like a type of person to do that.

1969. Couple in Paris. (Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)

Couple in Paris. (Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson), 1969

Secondly, this book captured the spirit of the times I would say. It made me think of all the Godard’s films I’ve seen and the music by Francoise Hardy. Michel could have seen Anna Karina or Brigitte Bardot on the streets of Paris, how cool is that? It also (again) sparked my interest for Cold war and Iron curtain. I also liked the character Sasha, a fellow Russian who escaped, but he is not accepted by the optimists club. I won’t tell you why is that, but all is revealed at the end. I like his life philosophy. When Michel asked him for a cure for sadness, Sasha told him to: eat something tasty like cakes or chocolates, secondly -listen to music, he particularly recommended Shostakovich, and thirdly – watch films, two or three in a row. Sasha also told him that he used to waste his time working and working, but now he lives slowly and enjoys every day of his life as a gift; he reads, takes a nap in the afternoon, listens to concerts on the radio, walks around Paris, chats with people, feeds the kittens in the neighbourhood.

1960s Paris années, Jeunes femmes sur les Champs-Elysées, Photo Janine Niepce

Jeunes femmes sur les Champs-Elysées, Photo Janine Niepce, 1960s

Oh, I have to warn you that it’s a rather long book, about seven hundred pages, but it’s fast-paced and tremendously interesting. The ending was a bit sad. It’s on you to discover that, but it seems like everything is falling apart as Michel slowly and horrifyingly becomes an adult.