Wednesday, December 8, 2010

NYRB Challenge #47 & 48: A Lost Love and No Love Lost. . .

I first discovered the marvellous writing of  Stefan Zweig through the NYRB editions of Chess Story and the strange and haunting novel The Post-Office Girl which was a Dewey Diva pick (I reviewed it here.)  So when NYRB's new edition of Journey Into the Past, translated by Anthea Bell, landed on my desk last month, it was a no brainer for this challenge.  The fact that most of this novella takes place on a train, was just a bonus.

Ludwig has returned to Germany after nine years and is travelling with his former employer's wife - a woman he fell in love with all those years ago. The feeling was mutual, but Ludwig was sent to work in Mexico for two years and stuck in North America when the First World War broke out. Now married with children, he's returned for a brief visit, only to find that his love is as strong as ever but the obstacles that separate the two are just as problematic, if different. Zweig has a subtle way of juxtaposing this brief, unconsummated love against the huge historical backdrop of the two world wars (though the second hasn't yet started, there are clear intimations of what is to come). The intensity of emotion between the two lovers is both everything and nothing, insignificant against the tide of political events, and thwarted even by the mundane. They can't even talk in their train compartment because of the entry of noisy companions.  This is a lovely novella of longing, lust and looking back.

The editors at NYRB are clearly attracted to novels featuring strong, sometimes disagreeable, but always original and utterly unforgettable narrative voices. I think of Rachel in Stephen Benatar's Wish Her Safe at Home or Cassandra in Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding.  I can now add nasty Harriet in Iris Owen's After Claude.  And the cover is just perfect! This 1973 novel opens brilliantly with, "I left Claude, the French rat." And goes on for several pages describing the couple's fight over an art movie depicting the death of Christ. Here's just a sampling of Owens' caustically funny style:
     Claude, his arms tightly wrapped around his chest, his crossed legs encased in tight white jeans, said, "I don't want to discuss the movie."
     "I couldn't agree more. To hell with the rotten movie. Admit it was torture, so we can talk about us."
     Claude sighed.
     "Stop suffering so much," I cried. "It's getting all over the taxi."
     A tiny, stubborn, human part of me needed to hear that Claude hated the movie, because, believe me, it's no holiday for a woman of my refined tastes to discover she's living with a fool."
This is no Woody Allen relationship tale though - not even in his darker Ingmar Bergman phase.  Harriet may be outspoken and brash, but she's also a lazy, mean and manipulative parasite, not only to Claude, but to Rhoda, a former friend who let her crash in her apartment.  Once in, people find it very difficult to extract Harriet from their lives, but since she's the one telling her story, it never of course is her fault. Harriet makes you repeatedly wince and that's the pure delight of reading this novel. The second half falters a bit as Harriet, now ensconced in a Chelsea hotel, wanders into a neighbouring room where she is oddly fascinated by the group of strange, drugged partiers she encounters. We see a more vulnerable, quieter side of her, but it's the spirited, abrasive and toxic Harriet that readers will remember.  There's a good piece on the book and Iris Owens' life at Bookforum.  Read it here.

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