A double helping of Maigret

One of the great things about Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels is that they’re short. Each features a story told in full, but achieved within 160 pages or so – in this he resembles Muriel Spark. No words are wasted and there is no flowery language. Indeed, Simenon was known for cutting out ‘beautiful sentences’, editing out unnecessary descriptives and adverbs – in this he also resembles Elmore Leonard. Or rather given that Simenon started writing decades previously, perhaps they resemble him in these respects. More recently, Pascal Garnier has been labelled as the heir to Simenon; true, his novels are short and noir, recalling Simenon’s romans durs, but they are deliciously comic in their nastiness, whereas I wouldn’t say that any of Simenon’s works are overtly funny – although as a character, Maigret is not without a sense of humour!

I read a lot of Maigrets when I was a teenager, but none since except for The Bar on the Seine back when this blog was new and I’d acquired a cheap set of nine Penguin ‘Red’ Maigrets from The Book People in 2006. Now, with the Penguin reissues in wonderful new liveries, and mostly new translations, I plan to make reading his novels a regular thing, not least because their length makes them perfect for the train journey to and from London or as palate cleansers between other tomes.

Let me tell you about the two Maigret novels I read last week – one from the new series, one from the old:

Pietr the Latvian

Maigret 1 Pietr the Latvian This was the first Maigret novel, published originally in serial form in 1931 – yes that long ago! At the beginning Maigret is stoking his office stove when a message comes from Interpol that a wanted international conman known as Pietr the Latvian is due to arrive at the Gare du Nord. Maigret hurries off to meet the train:

He stood still. Other people were agitated. A young woman clad in mink yet wearing only sheer silk stockings walked up and down, stamping her heels.
He just stood there: a hulk of a man, with shoulders so broad as to cast a wide shadow. When people bumped into him he stayed as firm as a brick wall.

Just as he has spotted his man with a retinue of hotel porters in the crowds getting off the train, a shout alerts him that the police are needed – a body, shot,  has been found on the train, and his quarry gets away. No worry, Maigret knows where they were headed. However the corpse also matches the description of the Latvian, but Maigret has a hunch about the other man and goes to the Hotel Majestic, where he openly stalks ‘Mr Oppenheim’ who dines with a wealthy couple at the hotel – later all three will vanish from the hotel.

Back at the office, a strand of hair in a glassine envelope that had stored a photograph was the only posession on the body from the train. An address in Fécamp, a town on the Normandy coast, has been faintly imprinted on it. Dispatching Torrence to the Hotel Majestic, Maigret goes to Normandy and stakes out the house of the envelope’s owner, standing in an alleyway in the pouring rain:

Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police – anthropometry, the principle of the trace, and so forth – and that have turned detection into forensic science. But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.

That last quote encapsulates to me the essence of Maigret’s style of detecting. Waiting and watching. Maigret, however, doesn’t always do this passively – he is not beyond pushing buttons to see what happens, more often than not confirming his hunches.  Needless to say, Maigret clears up the mystery of the identities of Pietr the Latvian and the body on the train, but not without some psychological intrigue, twists and more gunfire.

In this first Maigret novel, we may get to know the figure of Maigret – his solid presence and how he works, but little of his personality – that will surely follow.  In the last chapter of Pietr the Latvian, we also briefly meet Madame Maigret who bustles about looking after him, an unexpectedly jolly woman, I can imagine the pair of them, her gently henpecking him, and him indulgently letting her do it in subsequent outings.

David Bellos translated this new edition and it certainly didn’t disappoint – it was fresh and reflected the character of Maigret in the prose – a great start to the series. (7.5/10)

The Yellow Dog

simenon-the-yellow-dog-penguin

2006 Penguin Red Classic cover

This is the fifth or sixth Maigret book depending on which source you read (I’m finding the Maigret Bibliography and other pages at Trussel.com very helpful. There, The Yellow Dog is the 6th book, also published in 1931). The edition I read, the Penguin Red Classic from 2006 was translated by Linda Asher, and this translation has been retained for the new editions (although I don’t know it it has been changed at all).

It is set in the fishing port of Concarneau in Brittany, a location which Simenon must have known well, for at the bloggers’ reception I went to last weekend, John Simenon told me that many of the buildings described in the book actually exist, including the bar and hotel which are at the centre of the story (see here for an article in French by John Simenon about them).

One November evening, a shot rings out in Concarneau. One of the town’s notables, the wine dealer Mostaguen was shot at point-blank range through a letter-box as he sheltered in a doorway to light a cigar after leaving the Admiral Café. A large yellow stray dog is seen in the vicinity, assumed to belong to the would-be murderer. Maigret, who has been helping the Rennes police force, attends the next day bringing the young detective Leroy with him.

Installed at the hotel, Maigret goes to drink with Mostaguen’s circle of friends, when Michoux, a former doctor, notices grains in their drinks which are identified as strychnine. Next day, another of the group, Servières disappears, his car found abandoned and blood-stained. Sensing a potential serial killer story, the town is besieged by journalists and in coming days the Mayor presses Maigret constantly to find the killer, whom they presume to be a vagrant – with a yellow dog…

Maigret lets Leroy do all the conventional detecting, while he assumes his usual waiting and watching alongside cultivating the waitress Emma who works at the bar:

Maigret’s gaze fell on a yellow dog lying beneath the till. Raising his eyes, he saw a black skirt, a white apron, a face with no particular grace, yet so appealing that throughout the conversation that followed he hardly stopped watching it.
Whenever he turned away, moreover, the waitress, in turn, fixed her agitated gaze on him.

Yellow dog new

New edition

The Yellow Dog is a great yarn – everyone involved seems to have something to hide, especially Emma perhaps? Maigret obviously has his suspicions as to whodunnit early on, but we don’t find out the full story until the cast are gathered together for the denouement, very much as Hercules Poiret so loves to do. The younger Leroy gives Maigret a chance to offer fatherly advice about more intuitive detecting style based on observation rather than forensics, which was a nice touch, but Maigret’s co-star in this short but complex tale is Concarneau itself. The events happen in the depressed off-season, when the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots in town are at their greatest – in the summer everyone works. The notables believe that only an unemployed social outcast could be capable of these dastardly acts, but Maigret’s sympathies lay firmly on the side of poor downtrodden Emma and the vagrant, whom we’ll meet in time.

I don’t think I’d ever have been able to work out whodunnit in The Yellow Dog; for a mystery of a mere 130 pages, the plot was surprisingly complex. I  really liked Maigret more in this novel – his non-judgemental support of the underdog, not suffering fools like the mayor gladly and his ability to say no comment without actually having to say it. Translator Linda Asher is able to bring the town and the tail-end of autumn’s weather alive, whilst giving Maigret some joviality and a bit of a twinkle in his eye, which made this such fun to read. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pietr the Latvian: Inspector Maigret #1 by Georges Simenon, trans David Bellow. Pengiun classics, 2013 edition, pbk 176 pages.
The Yellow Dog: Inspector Maigret #5 by Georges Simenon, trans Linda Asher. Penguin classics, 2014 edition, pbk 144 pages.

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A Dance to the Music of Time 4: At Lady Molly’s

Dancing Powell

At Lady Molly’s by Anthony Powell

Dance 4 Lady MollysWe reach Summer with volume four of Powell’s sequence following the life of Nick Jenkins and his contemporaries.The initial three Spring novels were about growing up and establishing oneself in the world and in The Acceptance World took a rather serious turn. That done, there’s time for a breather. Summer is going to be about consolidation and much more fun; for Jenkins et al that will mean thoughts of marriage!

It starts with Jenkins remembering an episode from his childhood when he encountered Mildred Blaides at the home of General and her much older sister Mrs Conyers. in 1916 Blaides, working as an indifferent volunteer nurse is emancipated and an independent spirit, smokes ‘gaspers’, wears ‘glad rags’ and ‘beetles’ about.  This start made a change from the previous three novels which all started with Jenkins reflecting on a work of art – but I needn’t have worried for on page 10 back in 1934, Jenkins recalls Constable’s painting of Dogdene, the home of the Sleafords, which became an officers hospital during WWI.

In 1934, Jenkins has moved on from the art publishing firm and is now a scriptwriter at film studios to the west of London. It is his colleague Chips Lovell who takes him to his Aunt Molly’s (an Ardglass and sister to Lady Warminster who is stepmother to the Tolland girls, she married into the Sleafords, and is now married to Captain Teddy Jeavons – got that?). They have an open house in the evenings, (but it is a much higher class affair than the wilder nights at Mrs Andriadis’ in the second book). It is here that he finds out who the potential second husband of Mildred is:

I myself was curious to see what Mildred Blaides – or rather Mildred Haycock – might look like after all these years, half expecting her to be wearing her V.A.D. outfit and smoking a cigarette. But when my eyes fell on the two of them, it was the man, not the woman, who held my attention. Life is full of internal dramas, instantaneous and sensational, played to an audience of one. This was just such a performance. The fiancé was Widmerpool. Scarlet in the face, grinning agitatedly through the thick lenses of his spectacles, he advanced into the room, his hand on Mrs. Haycock’s arm. … There was something a little frightening about him. That could not be denied. …

‘Well, he is no beauty,’ said Mrs. Conyers.

Oh dear!  It’s obvious that this relationship will be doomed from the outset, yet you have to credit Widmerpool for being so dogged in his pursuit of social standing – but to choose an older woman who is so used to getting her own way seems ridiculous. The vision of Mildred the cougar and Widmerpool the toy boy is hilarious. Mildred is a demanding fiancée and ere long Widmerpool is struck down by jaundice, leaving her to carry on regardless. Nick finds himself questioned on all sides about Widmerpool’s parentage, and then by Widmerpool himself for some advice in the bedroom department!

Inbetween, all the usual intrigue and wife-swapping goes on between Nick’s friends and acquaintances. It’s hard to keep up with them all and the families seem to be so inter-related just beyond the level that would be incest! Eventually, Nick meets Isobel Tolland and he instantly knows that she is the one.

This volume is a real comedy of manners. Widmerpool, as usual, is the target or cause of most of the happenings, but as always, he soldiers on. All the jolliness has to be played against the rise of Hitler and Fascism which is always in the background now. It will be interesting to see how WWII affects this set in subsequent volumes.  However, back to the comedy: one new character is introduced in this book who is hilarious – Smith, the butler. He buttles for Lord Warminster (brother-in-law of Lady Molly’s sister), known as Erridge or Erry. He is rude, lazy and working his way through the wine cellar – but Lady Molly borrows him from time to time. Uncle Giles only gets a mention this time, but Nick has ready-made Giles substitutes in Teddy Jeavons and General Conyers.

I really enjoyed At Lady Molly’s and am thoroughly immersed in my monthly doses of Jenkins’ world – Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant next… (9/10)

My reviews of the previous volumes:
1 – A Question of Upbringing
2 – A Buyer’s Market
3 – The Acceptance World

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
At Lady Molly’s (Dance to the Music of Time) by Anthony Powell (1957) Arrow pbk, 256 pages.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – what a film!

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-PosterImaginthe-grand-budapest-hotel-featurette-the-storye one of those old grand spa hotels from the early 1930s in an Eastern European alpine setting – a destination in its own right, busy, happening and very posh. Fast forward a few decades to faded grandeur marred by 1970s orange everywhere, near-empty, peopled just by the curious, or those on a bargain package… such is the plight of The Grand Budapest Hotel in Wes Anderson’s latest film.

What happened to the hotel? What was it like in its heyday?  Framed as a story within a story within a story, Anderson tells the story of Gustave H. – the best, the most attentive hotel concierge you’ve ever seen, and the events that got him into trouble.

Ralph Fiennes is Gustave, the concierge with an attention for detail nonpareil, who keeps all his old lady clients, including an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton as Madame D. a dowager on her last legs, ‘entertained’.

The hotel has a new Lobby Boy – Zero, played by Tony Revolori, whom Gustave takes under his wing. Gustave will teach him to ‘Anticipate the needs before the needs are needed.

When Madame D. dies, they go on an adventure together.  Against the wishes of her sons (Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe), she had left a priceless painting to Gustave.  In a moment of impulsiveness, Gustave takes the painting and runs – leaving him open to being prime suspect when it becomes clear that Madame D was murdered.  A series of hilarious capers ensues as Gustave is caught, escapes, and seeks out the truth.

The look of the film is sumptuous. All the interiors are plush and lush, or dark and brooding as needed. It is always snowing in this alpine region, but it never feels cold – strange that.  However, having made the wonderful stop-motion Fantastic Mr Fox (my favourite Wes Anderson film until now), the director has built in some animated sequences too – the hotel from afar is seen as a cut-out against a screen backdrop and there are trademark scenes of running characters seen in silhouette against the sky – they blend perfectly into the action.  References abound too – from the police inspector’s fox head badge to scenes of long, and I mean really long, ladders. I loved all this.

Then there is the cast – I can honestly say that I can’t think of another film that has so many cameos of star quality as this one.  Apart from Gustave, Zero, the nasty brothers and Jeff Goldblum as the lawyer, the other main parts are all small but lovely – Harvey Keitel’s tattooed prisoner, Ed Norton’s police inspector, Tilda Swinton possibly stand out, but they are all wonderful.  All of Anderson’s usual collaborators are there, including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman too.  (Doesn’t Adrien Brody look a proper gorgeous villain with that ‘tache?)

brilliant-new-poster-arrives-for-the-grand-budapest-hotel-151538-a-1387438468-470-75

Dominating though is Fiennes as the normally unflappable Gustave, who when flapped is totally hilarious, other times effortlessly charming, the perfect host, and always just slightly camp, darling.  Revolori makes an excellent foil – although he does get cross when Gustave can’t help flirting with his girlfriend (Saiorse Ronan).

zweig

I haven’t mentioned the music yet either – lots of balalaikas – I adore balalaikas so much I’ve bought the soundtrack album.  In fact I want a balalaika too!

Now I can’t wait for the book of Stefan Zweig writings that inspired the film to arrive now…

This film is vintage Anderson, quirky, quietly hilarious, brilliantly acted, and with an exceptional attention to detail. It was utterly, utterly fab, and I’d go and see it again without a doubt (if I wasn’t too busy).

Greene for Gran – “Something will turn up.”

I’m joining in Simon Savidge’s tribute to his late gran – Greene for Gran, reading one (or more) books by her favourite author during August. The first novel I’ve read is…

England Made Me by Graham Greene

england made me 2 I thought I’d read all of Greene’s novels, but I found one on my shelf that I hadn’t read before. It was amongst the books I inherited from my late mum, so was particularly appropriate. I had to make sure I had the right reading glasses on though, this traditional small format 1970 Penguin edition has tiny text.

England Made Me is one of his early novels, the sixth, and was published in 1935 when he was 31. It was republished with the title Shipwrecked in 1953.

A pre-war morality tale, it concerns twins, Anthony and Kate Farrant. Brother and sister are at first glance like chalk and cheese which makes for a good set-up.  Here’s the beginning …

She might have been waiting for her lover. For three quarters of an hour she had sat on the same high stool, half turned from the counter, watching the swing door. Behind her the ham sandwiches were piled under a glass dome, the urns gently steamed. As the door swung open, the smoke of engines silted in, grit on the skin and like copper on the tongue.

But it’s Anthony she’s waiting for. He eventually turns up, apologetic but unrepentant, and telling her the same old story:

‘I’ve resigned.’
But she had heard that tale too often; it had been the yearly fatal drumming in their father’s ears which helped to kill him. He had not been able to answer a telephone without anxiety – ‘I have resigned’, ‘I have resigned’, proudly as if it had been matter for congratulation – and afterwards the cables from the East tremblingly opened. ‘I have resigned’ from Shanghai, ‘I have resigned’ from Bangkok, ‘I have resigned’ from Aden, creeping remorselessly nearer. Their father had believed to the end the literal truth of those cables, signed even to relatives with faint grandiloquence in full, ‘Anthony Farrant’, But Kate had always known too much; to her these messages conveyed – ‘Sacked. I am sacked. Sacked.’

England made me 1

So we have the measure of Anthony, a waster and sponger, reliant on false brotherhood conferred by an old school tie which he is not entitled to wear; fired each time he is found out.

But what of Kate? She may despair of Anthony, but as his twin there is a very strong bond between them.  She’s an ex-pat too, however, she has a steady job as secretary – and lover, to Krogh, a Swedish financier and industrialist living and working in Stockholm.

Krogh is the epitome of the fat cat who has got rich by shady dealings – exploiting monopolies and insider trading, price fixing; all common practice to him. Greene apparently based him on a real Swedish magnate – Ivar Kreuger, whose empire was founded on matches.

Kate takes Anthony back to Stockholm with her, and gets him a job as Krogh’s bodyguard.  Krogh’s life is ruled by the attentions of the newspapers and paparazzi.  His every move is chronicled, he can’t go anywhere without it being reported and commented upon, especially by Minty, a down-at-heel journalist and perennial victim.

Farrant plays the middle game – sort of befriending Minty and Krogh.  He persuades Krogh, who habitually goes to the opera most nights, to come out of his shell a little, to escape the paparazzi and go to a club; he tells Minty he’ll get the exclusive when there’s a story.  Underneath it all, Farrant is a decent chap. Then one day Krogh asks him to do something which is against Anthony’s internal moral code – which way will he go?

A complication is added in the form of a girl for Anthony, Lucia, on holiday with her parents. Anthony falls for her and for perhaps the first time, Kate is worried about the possibility of her not being the number one female in his life. Being a twin, their bond has been so strong, she likens excision of it to be akin to an abortion!

This novel is truly murky on all fronts, including the autumnal mists of Stockholm as it prepares for the end of the season.  This is not one of Greene’s ‘entertainments’, it’s dark and serious and full of moral dilemmas. None of the characters are likeable, although Anthony has puppyish moments about him. Kate is too brittle and too involved, and Krogh is a tyrant. The seedy Minty has public interest at heart though, and helps Farrant with his decision.

england made me film posterGiven that it was published in 1935, I wondered why it had been set in famously neutral Sweden, it gave the whole rather an air of blandness, and the northern European setting is unusual for Greene.
The novel was filmed in the 1970s with Peter Finch as Krogh and Michael York as Farrant, but they relocated it to Nazi Germany, which I’m sure added a frisson of excitement – but maybe less shades of grey?

So, not my favourite Greene, but still a fascinating read with complex characters and some great descriptive moments. (7/10)

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Source: Inherited copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
England Made Me : by Graham Greene, Vintage paperback.

A tale of motherhood across generations…

The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson

The Confidant by Helen Gremillon

I got a letter one day, a long letter that wasn’t signed. This was quite an event, because I’ve never received much mail in my life. My letter box had never done anything more than inform me that the-sea-was-warm or that the-snow-was-good, so I didn’t open it very often. Once a week, maybe twice in a gloomy week, when I hoped that a letter would change my life completely and utterly, like a telephone call can, or a trip on the métro, or closing my eyes and counting to ten before opening them again.
And then my mother died. And that was plenty, as far as changing my life went: your mother’s death, you can’t get much better than that.

It is Paris, 1975 and Camille is sad; at the loss of her mother, and the fact that the baby growing inside her will not know its grandmother. She is doubly so at the demise of her relationship with Nicholas, who we’ll find out doesn’t want anything to do with the baby.

When this letter arrives in amongst all the condolence cards, she starts reading…  It tells how teenager Louis met Annie back in 1933, and fell in love with her from afar. It doesn’t give many clues to who they are and where it happened. Camille is confused – why has this letter been sent to her?

In the following days and weeks, more letters arrive. Camille, who works in publishing, half wonders if it is a bizarre pitch being made to her, but something about the letters makes it seem that they are intended for her, and that the story therein is true.

They tell of how a bourgeois couple Mr & Madame M move into the village, about how Madam M notices Annie’s painting and encourages her, and how Annie later found out about Madame M’s inability to have a baby and offered to be a surrogate for her.  War intervenes, and it all gets very complicated. Louis loses touch with Annie for several years, but is able to pick up the story later.

I hadn’t seen her for three years. For three years I’d had no news of her at all. At no time did I suspect she might be living in Paris like me. I looked at her fingernails, her peeling red varnish; in the village she never used to wear any. Seeing her again like this: It seemed too good to be true. Outside it was pitch black. I was suddenly overwhelmed by desire for her. She handed me a steaming hot cup.
‘So do you remember Monsieur and Madame M.?’
How could she ask me such a thing.

The story of Louis, Annie, Mr & Madam M is teased out over the course of the novel. It is complex, full of tragedy in many ways and multi-layered, with little revelations that keep Camille desperate to know what happened and full of questions still, not to mention her feeling an increasing bond of motherhood with Annie.

This novel uses two literary devices to tell its story – when most use just one.  The dual narrative combined with the epistolary approach may feel somewhat contrived, but actually serves the story well.  We have the same questions that Camille has about Annie’s life, we feel for Camille’s loss and Annie’s situation,  and end up caring for both women, whereas often in dual narratives, one will dominate. I will say that I didn’t get much of a feel for 1970s Paris in Camille’s timeline though. However, the clever reveal made this a rewarding read, and I’ve yet to read a novel from Gallic books, who specialise in English translations of the best contemporary French books that I didn’t enjoy.  (8/10)

For some other reviews see:  Fleur Fisher and Winstonsdad.

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My copy came via the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson, Gallic Books 2012, paperback 267 pages.

An absolute pleasure to dip into …

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM DelafieldI’m so glad I finally decided to give this book a go, as it has been a real pleasure to dip into over the past couple of weeks.  As I already reported here, I was smitten by this book from its opening pages.  Having obtained an omnibus edition with all four volumes of ‘diaries’ in, I have plenty more to look forward to. Originally published in 1930, the book also dovetails nicely into my recent reading as a British counterpoint to Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell – a novel of vignettes in the life of a middle-class 1930s housewife in Kansas, which I read back in January.

As author of her diaries, the Provincial Lady (PL) is never named, but we soon meet the other members of her household – husband Robert, who is, as often as not, asleep behind his newspaper; son Robin who boards at Prep School, and younger daughter Vicky who has a French Governess known as Mademoiselle; then there is Cook, and another servant.

There is a rich cast of other supporting characters who keep the PL busy, notably: down in Devon, there’s Our Vicar’s Wife who pops in and finds it hard to leave, and local dowager Lady Boxe who swooshes round in her Bentley and finds the PL ‘amusing’; and then there is Rose, the PL’s best friend who lives a luxurious life in London, and who frequently provides an escape from the country for the PL.

It is up to the PL to run the household, and this is her biggest struggle. She wrestles with the accounts – they are always a little overdrawn or behind with the bills, tries to keep Cook happy, and manage a succession of housemaids who never seem to stay long.  Cook is always threatening to leave too, which keeps the PL on her toes.  Meanwhile, Mademoiselle has bons mots for every occasion – often oblique and virtually incomprehensible in their idiomatic French.

Whereas the PL is effectively held to ransom by her servants, she is, however freely indulgent with her children who are a source of great love and enjoyment to her. She loves nothing more than to play with them, but out in public – feels she has to show a slightly different face:

January 3rd. – Hounds meet in the village. Robert agrees to take Vicky on the pony… Vicky looks nice on pony, and I receive compliments about her, which I accept in an off-hand manner, tinged with incredulity, in order to show that I am a modern mother and should scorn to be foolish about my children.

I love the PL’s turn of phrase, her notes and memos to herself, and her witty observations about her world.  Whether it is worrying about the finances, or not having a thing to wear, the book of the month club, or not getting first prize in the writing competitions in the journal she subscribes to, all her concerns are chronicled.  Regarding her friends and acquaintances, luckily for us, the PL is happy to write in her diary what she would never say out loud and the results are often hilarious, but feel very real.

This book frequently made me giggle out loud. It is much funnier than the aforementioned Mrs Bridge – the PL doesn’t have enough spare time for MB’s introspection. Of course, being written in first-person diary form, rather than as an observed narrative, the PL’s personality really shines through, and I really liked her. (10/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield, Virago Modern Classics paperback – currently o/p, but used copies available.

Art, Love and War

Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes, trans from the Spanish by Adriana V Lopez

This novel is a fictionalised account of the true story of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, two of the foremost photojournalists who reported on the Spanish Civil War.

The story begins in Paris though, when young Jewish German refugee Gerta meets handsome Hungarian photographer André. There is an instant strong bond between them, he starts to teach Gerta photography, and she becomes his assistant and manager, but it will take some time for them to become lovers.  Gerta takes everything very seriously…

The way you look at things is also how you think about and confront life. More than anything, she wanted to learn and to change. It was the perfect opportunity to do so, the moment when everything was about to happen, in which life’s course could still alter itself. Many months later, just before daybreak in another country, beneath the rattling of machine guns in minus-five-degree weather, she would remember that initial moment when happiness was going out to hunt and not killing the bird.

Their circle in Paris was full of big names including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Man Ray and Matisse. It was difficult to get work amongst all this competition. One day Gerda had an inspiration – she invented a new persona for André and the elusive American photographer Robert Capa was born.  Gerta also changed her name, to make it sound less Jewish and she became Gerda Taro.

Capa began to get photo-journalism assignments, and when the Spanish Civil War came, they both went out to Barcelona in 1936 and got stuck in. Gerda was just 26.  Capa gained international fame for his photo The Falling Soldier, capturing that moment as a man gets hit in the head.  They lived for adventure and were sometimes reckless in getting the shot, Gerda’s photos also being credited to the bogus Robert Capa.

Their relationship was no less intense. Once they fell in love, it was total and they didn’t need anyone else. Gerda refused Robert’s proposal though, needing space and to find her own way. She discussed this with her friend Ruth, back in Paris …

“The reality is I’ve never been able to choose. I didn’t choose what happened in Leipzig, I didn’t choose to come to Paris, I didn’t choose to abandon my family, my brothers, I didn’t choose to fall in love. Nor did I choose to become a photographer. I chose nothing. Whatever came my way, I dealt with it as I could.” She got up and began playing with an amber bead, tossing it between her hands. “My script was always written by others.”

Gerda struck out on her own, but she still loved Robert, and in the style of true star-crossed lovers their relationship ends tragically.

This is very much a novel of two contrasting halves, or rather locations.  Gerta & André /Gerda & Robert in Paris as part of the intellectual left-leaning café society, and then Gerda & Robert in Spain at the sharp end. I loved both – the burgeoning love story and the obsession with work in a field that once experienced, would never make normal life seem the same again.

Gerta and André are an irrestistible couple.  She, the blonde, cool and detached German, he, the passionate and dark Gypsy.  I’d heard of the name Robert Capa, possibly in connection with the Magnum Agency, which he co-founded with Cartier-Bresson and others, but knew nothing about the man – the couple, and shockingly little about the Spanish Civil War other than that Hemingway and George Orwell had gone out there.

Fortes writes beguilingly about the Paris salons and the growing romance, and yes,   I was relieved when they finally got it together. Their love scenes, although passionate are handled with some delicacy. This contrasts with the harder edge given to the war scenes in which the author manages to portray the horrors and the confusion clearly.

The Author’s Note at the end makes clear where fiction begins and ends – all the war scenes are documented.  The inspiration was a photo published in 2008, after three boxes of unedited photos were discovered.  The photo is of Gerda in bed wearing Capa’s pyjamas and captured Fortes’s imagination, and she resolved to tell their story.

Recently, I read another wartime historical ‘novel’ – HHhH by Laurent Binet, which was a totally frustrating read.  Waiting for Robert Capa is a conventional narrative, but has an immediacy and a freshness that the other lacked for me.  Although I did need to read a little background on the Spanish Civil War to make sense of the factions involved, you cannot read this story without being inspired to look at some of Capa’s wonderful photos.  Guess which I preferred?!   (9/10)

Spanish Lit Month is being hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad

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My copy was sent by the publisher, thank you.
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Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes, Harper pbk, 201 pages.