Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

Letter from an Unknown Woman [1922]★★★★★

The opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference. This novella by an Austrian author, which was adapted into a major film of 1948 directed by Max Ophüls and starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, tells the story of a man who receives a strange letter one morning penned by one unknown-to-him woman. What this woman tells him is something much more than a mere confession. It is a soul-searching, gut-wrenching effort at personal liberation, a last cry to be finally understood in life and one fearful culmination of a life lived with one endless hope, a fruitless succession of attempts at happiness and one final tragic resignation. R. is a handsome man and a celebrated novelist who always had a lot of affection from women. The unknown woman is a dreamy and impressionable person from a much more modest family. What ties them together? From his point of view: three, very brief life episodes which can be counted by mere hours and which he forgot the moment they happened. From her point of view: absolutely everything, including three most important moments in her life, her whole world-view and the very point of her existence. Stefan Zweig wrote a powerful, sincere and moving account of one unrequited love and close examination of a person on the very fringes of another person’s life always looking in, hoping in vain to become a full-time participant.

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Recent Reading: Short Stories & Novellas

The Duel [1891] by Anton Chekhov – ★★★★★

This is a story that I read in Russian. This novella by Chekhov is set in the Caucasus, near the Black Sea, and tells of Laevsky, a lazy, egoistic, good-for-nothing government official who spends his days playing cards, swimming, drinking, arguing with his mistress and getting deeper into debt. Laevsky is increasingly tired of and frustrated by his mistress, Nadezhda Fedorovna, the wife of another man, and decides “to get rid” of her by going away. However, he starts to understand that he is both out of money and out of friends. On his path then appears Von Koren, a scientist and a man of principles, who does not think twice about challenging Laevsky to a duel.

Chekhov had this incredible talent of conjuring up deep and unforgettable character studies/insights in a very few words and paragraphs, and The Duel is a classic tale of disillusionment, crushed ideals, deceiving appearances and humanity caught in an endless cycle of other people’s opinions and judgement. Everyone “has their own truth” in the story, especially Laevsky, who finds himself at the biggest crossroad in his life, facing the possibility of the weight of harsh reality crushing him. The largest sorrow in life may consist in the actual realisation of the truth of one’s existence and past actions, as well as in the process of brutal self-confrontation. With humour and wit, Chekhov takes a penetrating look at the human nature in The Duel, trying to answer the question whether even self-acknowledged scoundrels like Laevsky could hope for forgiveness and redemption; whether even these people are deserving of hope; and whether even they could also find their place among the virtuous and the good, mending their ways.

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Review: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb

fear-and-tremblingFear and Trembling [1999/2001] – ★★

Belgian author Amélie Nothomb (Sulphuric Acid) is known for her short, thought-provoking books that often shock, but Fear and Trembling misses the mark. In this story, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, a young Belgian woman starts working for a prestigious Japanese company Yumimoto and soon finds herself overwhelmed: she is delegated meaningless, absurd and increasingly demeaning tasks, while her relationship with her immediate supervisor Fubuki Mori undergoes drastic changes – from deep admiration to extreme hate. While Nothomb’s deadpan satire on corporate culture works at the start of the book, her attempt to shockingly satirise the Japanese culture and the difficulty of the westerner to integrate into it is completely misguided. Thus, with Fear and Trembling, what starts as an intriguing and delicate satire soon turns into something bewildering, unfocused and ignorant, a strange, barely-hidden polemic on traditional female roles and Japan with some very needless and overly-shocking episodes.   Continue reading “Review: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb”

Review: Amulet by Roberto Bolaño

Amulet Book CoverAmulet [1999/2006] – ★★★★★

“…those who can see into the past never pay. But I could also see into the future and vision of that kind comes at a high price: life, sometimes, or sanity” [Roberto Bolaño, 1999/2006: 64]. 

Last year I had a goal to read a certain number of books by Asian authors (see my YARC), and so, this year, I set myself a similar goal, but, this time, I will travel to another part of the world and try to read as many books as possible by Latin American authors. I will begin my Latin America Reading Challenge with a short book by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño (1952 – 2003) titled Amulet. In this vivid “stream of consciousness” account, our narrator is Auxilio Lacouture, a woman from Uruguay and the “mother of Mexican poetry”. She works part-time at one university in Mexico City and at one point realises that her university (National Autonomous University of Mexico) is being surrounded by an army (event that happened two months before the infamous Tlatelolco massacre of 1968). Auxilio finds herself alone and hiding in the lavatory of the university as the army rounds up the staff and students. At that point she starts to recall her own past, talking to us about her dedication to nurturing the artistic talent of others. As time passes and her hunger and exhaustion increase, her account becomes increasingly hectic and imaginative. Amulet is an unusual novella with one unusual narrator at its heart, which is also strangely compelling as it tries to tell us the truth of the situation in the country and the state of Latin America’s literary talent and tradition through an unconventional and slightly dreamlike voice. Continue reading “Review: Amulet by Roberto Bolaño”

Review: Sulphuric Acid by Amélie Nothomb

Sulphuric Acid1.docx Sulphuric Acid [2005/2007] – ★★★★

This book is by a Belgian author Amélie Nothomb, who was born in Japan, but now resides in Paris. Translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside, Sulphuric Acid is a short novella which quite shockingly and darkly satirises our obsession with TV, in particular with reality television, and our idolisation of celebrities. Probably taking some inspiration from Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (1999), Sulphuric Acid is a dystopia-set story in which millions of people tune in every night for a TV programme called Concentration, which recreates a Nazi-style concentration camp with real participants. People in this programme take either the roles of guards or prisoners, with cameras catching their every move. Nothomb packs a lot of ideas into her novella of just over 120 pages, and she is very interested to explore human responses to some unthinkable situations, as we follow the main characters – a beautiful young woman Pannonique, one of the prisoners, and sadistic Zdena, one of the guards. Continue reading “Review: Sulphuric Acid by Amélie Nothomb”

Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura

Shipwrecks Book Cover Shipwrecks [1982/1996] – ★★★★★

Shipwrecks is a short novel translated from the Japanese by Mark Ealey. It tells a story of one village in rural medieval Japan, following one boy Isaku, as his family struggles to get food essential for their survival. The village has a number of rituals, but one is particularly eerie: the village does everything it can to summon OFune-Sama (the Sea God) or shipwrecks to their coast. This phenomenon is often essential for the survival of the village (since ships carry the necessary food and other commodities), and Isaku and his family are always eagerly awaiting the season when O-Fune-Sama or shipwrecks occur. One day, such a ship does come to the shore where Isaku lives, but will it be a blessing or a curse for the village? Those who like books with discernible plot points and fast-paced action should look elsewhere. Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura is rather slow and contemplative in nature as it follows day-to-day activities of one village that has one eerie desire. However, despite based almost entirely on observations, the novel is no less fascinating and is subtly powerful. It is a great read for anyone who likes unusual stories which uncover different ways of looking at life.  Continue reading “Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura”

Review: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

the hour of the star coverThe Hour of the Star [1977] – ★★★★★ 

This thought-provoking novella by Clarice Lispector was translated from Portuguese by Benjamin Moser. It is narrated by one man Rodrigo S.M. who tells the tale of Macabéa, an ordinary girl from the northeast, who tries to make ends meet living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The novella is very unusual because, before the narrator gets to the crux of the story, he spends quite some time musing on the task at hand – how to write this story (for example, should the writer undergo some physical transformation before writing?), and whether there is any point in doing so since fiction may never capture the real truth. Despite its short length, the book tells an immersive and emotional story, while the author, through her narrator, also meditates on human existence and the meaning of life.  Continue reading “Review: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector”