Wow. I really was disappointed by this book, and was surprised by my own reaction, which was very different from most of my GR friends.
There were many...moreWow. I really was disappointed by this book, and was surprised by my own reaction, which was very different from most of my GR friends.
There were many reasons why I wasn't moved, either emotionally or intellectually, by Llewellyn's novel. To begin with, I knew, of course, that he wasn't really Welsh; that he committed a fraud (and I don't think I'm being too harsh here) by insisting all his life that he was born in Wales, and was raised in Wales and only educated in England. Other readers, of course, can--and do--view the children of immigrants as having a special insight into the culture of the parents which can be a satisfactory substitute for direct knowledge. I don't myself; perhaps it is because I am the child and grandchild of immigrants, and I am acutely aware of how much I really don't grasp. I don't know if I would have been so acutely conscious of how second- hand most of the information that Llewelyn was passing on; I would like to think so. As it was, only the music and the food (the bits of culture that the immigrant can most easily pass on to the child) felt authentic to me. (Yes, I would like to sample some brandy broth!) That--and the descriptions, towards the end, of the house being slowly suffocated in slag. That felt real, too. But no, I am sorry, so much of the book seemed self-conscious and rather false to me; a Mrs Miniver tinged "A Million Little Pieces".
That sounds tough, I know, and I think another reason I'm being so critical is that I'm judging this book, naturally enough, by the books I've read just before this one. I've been doing an around the world book challenge, and I've been trying to read my books in geographic order. Well, most authors would suffer in comparison with Dylan Thomas (a true poet who makes Llewelyn's sing-songy efforts look rather flat); or Flaubert, whose cool and precise description of exactly what effects arsenic has on the body horrified me, (whereas Llewelyn's descriptions of the starving miners seem blurred and cliched, and left me completely unmoved.) Maybe it's unfair to compare this author to two of the masters of world literature, but I also read The Book of Ebenezer le Page and Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show: A Novel of Ireland during the same time period. When Edwards told me the type of tomatoes that would grow best on Guernsey, I knew I could trust him; when Frank Delaney would stop his tale and explain the mores of 1930's rural Ireland, I had faith that he was telling me the truth, as much as anyone can be trusted to resurrect the thought patterns of a vanished time.
Historical fiction, which I love, is a tricky thing. There's always a filter of the writer's time period, always, always, no matter how much the author tries to rid themselves of their own mind-set. With "How Green is My Valley", I was always conscious that there were two filters; my own, and Llewellyn's 1930 sensibilities. Again, if I thought this book really excellent, I could accept that, and I would find Llewellyn's world outlook, influenced by the imminent outbreak of WWII, interesting in its own right. But the figures are so trite, all stiff-yet-trembling-upper lip. The Mary-Sue sister-in- law that Huw, the protagonist, is in love with, with laughter always in her eyes. The fiery brother. The stalwart father. The mother who is so proud of her cooking. They are all figures out of a John Ford movie--which indeed he did film, as soon as possible--and which, weirdly, I could NOT get out of my head, even though I've never seen that particular Ford picture. Up and down the mountain the mountain they were going, singing always. I felt constantly manipulated; and yes, it is the author's job to manipulate the reader, but you've got to trust the author, you've got to feel that you are in good hands. And I didn't. Not for a moment.
One of the things that really bothered me was the emphasis on fighting. Yes, it was a tough time, and there was very little law, apparently, in that era and place; that wasn't the problem for me. It was quite obvious, too, that LLewellyn got a real thrill out of writing those scenes; there is a nasty boxing match is particular that is described in great detail, though it is completely extraneous to the course of the novel. What bugged me was that Huw's not-taking-anything-from-anybody's stance was never explored, but glorified. OK; that's fine, too, but let's be honest here: Huw's pugnacious attitude, which caused him to (view spoiler)[ be thrown out of school right before he was to take entrance exams (hide spoiler)] and (view spoiler)[ had him arrested when he beat up someone who was making "remarks" about his sister (hide spoiler)] and (view spoiler)[ had him fired from every job he ever held (hide spoiler)] circumscribed, if not actually blighted his life. You're kidding yourself if you think that (view spoiler)[ ending up as a collier or a woodworker--and what was that BS about not accepting that bread-and-butter-work of making coffins? Please. (hide spoiler)] was the best outcome for Huw, especially since in reality the effects of having a bone-shattering accident would have lingered throughout his life. It's easy to put the proudly self-sufficient working-by-the-sweat-of-his-brow honest laboring man on a pedestal, if you don't actually have to DO the work. Like Llewellyn.
I can't say that I was particularly thrilled by the audio book format. It wasn't bad, but I've listened to two audio books set in Wales this year; neither of the first-person narration was done by someone from the country. This would never be seen as acceptable for a book set in Scotland or Ireland nowadays. Why is it OK to fake a Welsh accent? It seems more than a bit of a slight to the culture.
I was wavering between two and three stars, until I came across the passage, describing Huw's first kiss:
"The softness of her mouth was a glory of surprise, and cool, not even warm, with an easiness of moisture, and the tip of her tongue making play in idle strolling, lazily, and yet full of life, and her weight lying heavily upon me, her hair falling about our faces, shutting out the light, and all other smells save that of her, that was the perfume of the broad, sweet lands of the living flesh, that rose from her, and covered her about and followed her as she walked."
Fraudulent author; all right. Cardboard characters; OK. A macho glorification of violence; go right ahead. But bad sex writing--well, there are some things that I just can't accept.
**spoiler alert** This review contains spoilers. Or maybe it doesn't contain spoilers for other readers; I don't know.
To start off with, a novel addre...more**spoiler alert** This review contains spoilers. Or maybe it doesn't contain spoilers for other readers; I don't know.
To start off with, a novel addressing the plight of Hungarian Jews is a reasonably unusual subject for a young American writer (though I don't think Americans are particularly provincial in the topics they choose) that it is obvious the author must have a personal connection with the source material. Right from the beginning it's pretty clear that the author is writing about her grandparents. Thus, all tension is eliminated; you know that the main characters are going to survive, though peripheral characters may perish and all will suffer horribly. There's another problem. Could you write a novel about people you love and admire, people that you knew had lived through one of the greatest tragedies in world history, and write about them objectively? Could you show them as petty or cowardly? Could you write about their sex lives? I know I wouldn't be able to do it. Alas, Julie Orringer can't do it, either. I don't know if you can fault her for that; she tries gamely in an effort that I believe is doomed to fail--somewhat--from the beginning.
In 1937, young Andras Levi leaves Budapest to attend architecture school in Paris. Through mutal friends in the theater, he meets an older woman, a ballet teacher with an-out-of-wedlock daughter, Klara Morgenstern, and they fall in love. This first part of the novel, full of school exams, ballet and theatrical performances, and Sunday dinners--as well as the anti-Semiticism and the growing German menace--might be a bit slow for some readers. It is beautifully written with many arresting images--the little girls in their white tulle clusered blizzard-like around the coffee cake served backstage--a woman's shoe peeking out slyly under the fabric wall during the segregated dancing of an Orthodox wedding--as Ms Orringer paints a portrait of a world that is about to come crashing down. During this part of the book, Andras and Klara have some individuality; they sometimes argue; they even separate for s short time.
Unfortunately, during the second half of the book, after Andras feels compelled to return to Hungary after his student visa expires, the characters start losing their individuality. They suffer; they become icons. Klara in particular slowly recedes into a pasteboard image of the suffering and noble wife, until the vital woman of Paris is nothing more than a Jewish Madonna with a baby's starfish hand at her breast. They become, in short, more symbols that characters that the reader cares about--or at least I cared about--and the novel suffers.
Look, I'm not blaming Ms Orringer. I don't know if it would have been possible for her to portray her beloved grandparents otherwise. And I yearn for a grand and sweeping novel, filled with sensory details and thought-provoking action, which she certainly provides. I'd be glad to read another one of her novels--especially one in which she doesn't stack the deck against herself from the start.(less)
It's clear Eugenie Fraser was on a mission when she wrote her memoir of growing up during the last decades of czarist Russia. Born of a Sc...more 3.5 Stars
It's clear Eugenie Fraser was on a mission when she wrote her memoir of growing up during the last decades of czarist Russia. Born of a Scots mother and a Russian father in Archangel, she was witness as a teenager to the early days of the Russian Revolution; her mother's passport was her ticket (along with several of her immediate family members) of escape when the upheavals in her native land became increasingly violent and capricious. She finished her schooling in Scotland, married a Scotsman, and became the classic trailing wife as she followed him to job positions in India and Thailand. Mrs. Fraser came to writing only towards the end of a very long life, when she decided to write the story of her early years as a way of memorializing a way of living that has utterly disappeared, and to pay tribute to the many people that perished in the conflagrations of the Stalinist purges and WWII.
This was an admirable goal, certainly. The question is: how well did she succeed? Well, the answer is a bit complicated.
As a document of how people physically lived in an upper-middle class home it's brilliant. The fragrance of birch and pine pervading the rooms as the logs burned and crackled inside the great stove, the sour tang of the spiced cookie dough waiting weeks in great stone crocks before it would finally be rolled out into Christmas cookies, the itchy frustrations of a little girl frantically squirming to unfasten the final button of her long underwear--the details are immediate and vivid. Clearly Eugienie took great--almost animal delight--in recalling those sensory particulars. It's one of the greatest records I've come across of what things in a long ago era felt like, smelled like; as a catalogue of the sheer thinginess of things it is amazing. The exhaustive details never end; it's as if she were channeling Martha Stewart (and that is not meant as a disparagement as I admire Ms. Stewart as a force of nature; just don't look Martha in the eye or she'll find something for you to do, like maybe de-seeding a pomegranate or sanding down wooden clothespins to make them into Christmas ornaments) as Eugenie tells you how a household of that era was run:
Two young men dressed in high-necked, black cotton shirts came to polish these floors. After removing their boots, each slipped a thick sock over one foot. On the other was a special short boot fitted with a brush...Crossing one arm behind his back each man skated over the floor, the leg with the attached brush swinging back and fore in a wide sweep while the other dragged behind twisting and hopping...Their damp shirts clung to their backs, but they continued skating up and down the rooms, only stopping to change the boot to the other foot or to drink a glass of kvas--the cool beverage brewed from black bread and raisins, drunk all over Russia.
So yes, I take Ms Fraser's word for it when she informs you that this was the best way of polishing a parquet floor, or at least the way it was done back then. I have difficulties, however, with completely trusting her otherwise. For one thing, the POV is faulty; sometimes she relates her story only as she, a child at the time, would understand it back then; more often she is looking back at her childhood, with an older woman's comprehension (and understandable bitterness). You never are quite sure which Eugenie is telling a story, or how she came by that knowledge. I'm not referring to tales of her parents and her grandparents (particularly the dramatic account of her paternal Babushka journeying by troika to plead for clemency for her husband--though Eugenie succumbs to uncharacteristic vagueness as to whether her grandfather actually killed a man) as they would, naturally enough, pass into family legends. I'm talking about other stories, such as the monkey in the bathhouse, where it isn't clear that Eugenie was there or not. And there are a few no-way-do-I-buy-this moments, such as when Eugenie claims that, when she as a teenager, a group of soldiers entered her bedroom, lifted her up, and conducted a mattress sweep--all without her waking up. I'm sorry, I find that hard to believe that anyone could remain so profoundly asleep--unless he or she were drugged, drunk--or sustained a sharp knock on the head. She undermines her own credibility with nonsense like that; it's a shame.
There are other problems. Ms Fraser is superb with stuff; with dealing with the abstract she's pretty much helpless. (There's an interview with Ms Fraser where she claims that she has an exceptional memory but isn't very bright, and that her mother wasn't very intelligent, either. I'm inclined to accept both of these statements; in general, when people insist to you that they aren't very smart, you should go ahead and believe them.) She talks about the "dusha" or the Russian soul, and says that the Russian part of her swallowed up her Scots part, without going into further explanations as to what that meant, exactly. Her analysis of the collapse of her parents' marriage is confused and truncated, and her description of the abandonment she felt when her mother left to live in St Petersburg for two years is brief and bland. Far too many friends, family members, and servants are described as "very special"; indeed, there are far too many names of people, particularly towards the end. It's clear that she wants to bring as many people out of the past that she can, but she just can't do it, they remain faceless shadows, merely part of a rather exhausting catalogue, no matter how terribly they died. It's simply beyond her capability to bring them back to life.
Ms Fraser demonstrates another, far more troubling incapacity in her memoir. Russia's involvement in WWI, the various uprisings, the civil war, and the Russian revolution take up the last sections of the book. If the book had been written entirely through Eugenie's viewpoint as a teenager I would expect the book to remain tightly focused, with no explanation, or acknowledgement of the reasons behind Russia's turmoil; teens tend to be self-absorbed. Nor would I expect the older woman to react with anything except bitterness towards the political and military machine that took so much away from her. But I kept waiting for some sort of understanding from the mature Eugenie as to *why* the Russian Revolution happened. The men and women who served her family, the peasants that she saw pushing the logs down the river--oh, they all did their jobs, whistling or singing cheerfully. I kept waiting--and waiting--and finally Eugenie had her moment of truth, or what I thought should have been her moment of truth: She trudges along with her dairy bucket (as always with Eugenie, the details of which are dutifully described) to a peasant woman's hut to get some milk. The woman shrugs at the sight of the formerly pampered young mistress of the house being reduced to such a task, and coldly recounts how she had to race back and forth across the same stretch of ground to breastfeed her own babies during her brief breaks while working in the fields. Is there a frisson of guilt from the girl, or a now-I-get-it little clang in her head? Is there even a pause in Eugenie's narrative, a "looking back at this moment I could see..." There was nothing. NOTHING. Only a description of the woman's "malicious" smile and further lamentations on the loss of another silver spoon. (You know, the silver spoon that would have kept the peasant woman's family alive for a little while longer.)
As an example of the clueless obtuseness of the aristocrat, it was breathtaking. More than anything I've ever read in any book on the French or Russian Revolution, it made me realize WHY the peasant picks up a stone to sharpen his scythe, or lashes a makeshift pike upon a pole. (Though of course, revolutions are normally started by people just a bit higher on the social scale; they can see what they're missing out on, while the truly destitute are usually just struggling to survive.) So I guess I should thank Ms Fraser for really bringing home to me the oblivious, tone-deaf arrogance of the upper classes--even as I was mentally picking up the nearest heavy object. Further whines, of the "arrogance" of the army officer who "dared" to question her mother, etc. just cemented my opinion: some people just do not get it.
Eugenie Fraser died about a decade after she wrote "The House by the Dvina". She wrote two more memoirs; one, an account of her life during the last days of the Raj, which I am sure is full of the sounds and smells of an "exotic" land--and which undoubtedly unwittingly shows the cluelessness that got the British chased out of the sub-continent. (There's a jaw-droppingly obtuse comment about "small yellow men" fighting the Russians that no editor should have allowed to remain, no matter what era the writer had been brought up in.) I would have loved to have met her, and to have taken her out to dinner. I would have enjoyed hearing the differences on the Scots and Russian methods on how to make wild berry preserves (the Scots mash up the berries; the Russians lower the berries slowly into the boiling syrup to preserve them whole) and to hear a few of the tales her family told when they were gathered cozily around the samovar. But in the end, after a few hours of listening to a relentless recount of things-things-things, I probably would have called for the check early--or maybe even for a tumbril.
For more on this interesting--and aggravating--woman, check out this interview: