penguin books

Mercè Rodoreda: Death in Spring

Now here is a book cover to arrest the browser’s fickle gaze, with an elegant and beautiful balance of text, image and abstract colour. And it’s not a one-off, but part of a series design – Penguin European Writers – with titles by Cesare Pavese and Violette Leduc coming later this year. For the paper-fetishists among us, it’s a fine book-handling experience too, with flapped covers, slim format and printed on untreated card. And – I almost forgot – it’s one of the strangest and best books I’ve read this year.

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If I had to sum up Death in Spring (1986; tr. 2009 by Martha Tennent) with one line from the book, it would be the sentence that opens a chapter midway through: “When they pulled the boy from the river, he was dead; they returned him to the river.” This is a book full of reverses, balances and contradictions, that is entirely unexpected and repeatedly surprising. It tells of man against nature, where nature always wins because man is an interloper, a corrupted part of nature. The first page has the narrator, an unnamed fourteen-year-old boy, bathing in a river, and immediately the language pinpoints where the power lies. “…the mass of water descending from the mountains … All the waters joined together in the delirium of joining and flowed endlessly…” If the river doesn’t kill, it can leave a man with his face “ripped away when the desperate water hurled him against the rocks that supported the village.” And it’s not just the water: when young men try to collect powder to make paint for the village houses, the wind blows, “telling us that ours was a senseless job, something that was better left undone.” Even plants are in on it: “the strong wisteria vines, the wisteria that over the years upwrenched houses.”

We don’t know where the book is set, and although Rodoreda was Catalan, the setting has a more far-flung feel to it. Indeed, this is not a novel of the world we know at all, as we learn a few chapters in when the narrator’s father opens up a tree by carving a cross into it, then closes himself into the tree to die (though his death has a further stage to go, more grotesque still). It is fully loaded with sensory detail and often has the feel, cruelty and horror of a good fairy tale. “The village was born from the earth’s terrible unrest.” Bees, plants and worms are all malevolent, though they can suffer too in ironic flourishes: “In the fountain little worms curled and uncurled, rapidly. If they entered a person’s body, they burrowed through bones, veins and skin in order to escape. As soon as they broke the surface, they died, because they could not live without water.”

Death in Spring is not – it may go without saying at this stage – a book with a straightforward plot. There are recurring characters – the narrator’s stepmother, a blacksmith and his child, a prisoner, a village elder known as Senyor – and episodes of vivid action, but it is episodic and the book’s effect is not of a line following a path, but of a mood cloud. Colm Tóibín in his introduction does not attempt to explain the book in a traditional sense, and one Amazon reviewer notes that the happy reader must “curb any tendency to gain dominion over the narrative.” That is one way of putting it. In a sense the book doesn’t even have a beginning or ending, as the clear implication is that the narrator will end up as his father did, and that the cycle of life and death with continue. “Things don’t die. They continue. They pass from one to another.” Speaking out against the propagation of life late in the book is Senyor, in an extraordinary monologue:

That’s what kept me alive, never stopping, never stopping, one woman after another, always preferring the other one. I didn’t know then what was inside a man, and when I discovered, I wanted to die. […] Spring is sad, in spring all the world is ill, plants and flowers are the earth’s plague, rotten. The earth would be calmer if it were green-less, without this fury, this blind will that consumes everything but craves more, the affliction of the green, so much greenness and poisonous colour.

It is a book full of anger, horror and disgust but also of beauty in the vivid language and imaginative energy that explodes on every page. It is a bold choice to open the Penguin European Writers series and entirely unlike the nostalgic tale of love in sunny piazzas suggested by the cover image. It was published three years after Rodoreda’s death but in no sense does Death in Spring read like scraps from the writer’s drawer. It is clearly a fully realised work of art, an expression of vision, and entirely sui generis. It is, as the narrator describes a mountain spring, “something alive that I couldn’t understand”, and which is impossible to forget.

Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace

A few years ago, I had a discussion with someone who said they never re-read books. This seemed to me a wild claim. Re-reading is, to me, an essential component of reading: I might even say that the first reading of a book is only ever a provisional act, a test to determine whether it is fit to be retained for a future revisit, when I’ll take my time over it and give it the reading it deserves. In practice, because I am fully engaged in this first-level sifting, the re-reading almost never happens, an effect enhanced by the usual drains on reading time (see blog posts passim).

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Re-reading might be done for comfort reasons: I know people who read an old favourite each year, particularly favourites from adolescence or early adulthood. For me I’m more likely to re-read if, despite having read the book before, perhaps multiple times, it’s one that I’ve never got to the bottom of. Examples – books I’ve read at least three times each – would include Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, with its classic Wintersonian ‘spiral’ narrative, and Patrick McGrath’s Dr Haggard’s Disease, with its impeccable narrative mysteries.

This month I read another book for a third time. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1963, tr. Elizabeth Rokkan 1993) was previously published by Peter Owen, one of the first and finest internationalist independent publishers in the UK, which I wrote about here. Now, in a raid on deal for its backlist, Penguin has reissued some Peter Owen titles in its Modern Classics range. (That, of course, is another common trigger for me to re-read a book: Penguin has given it a handsome new look.) That cover image, by the way – a perfect complement both to the book and to Penguin’s new eau de nil look for its Modern Classics – is by Taiwanese artist Hsiao-Ron Cheng.

The Ice Palace is about two young women – children, in fact, at 11 years old, though this is easily forgotten – who have a strange connection and who are brought together, and separated, by a mysterious crystalline ice structure in the Norwegian fjords. There is no sentimentality or neat resolution, no happy ending: it is the anti-Frozen. A close comparison might be made with Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal, which shares with The Ice Palace its brevity, a sense of inchoate threat, and a fairytale atmosphere, though The Ice Palace remains much more uncompromising and bold. The two girls are Siss and Unn, opposing monosyllables, who have come to know one another in school, and at the beginning of the book are going to spend the afternoon together for the first time. Siss, in whose head we remain for most of the book, feels both excitement and fear, is “quivering with expectancy.” There’s an uncomfortable, nascent sexual feel to their history of becoming aware of one another at school. “They were both playing some game of enticement.” Siss, aware of Unn’s eyes on her in class, feels “a peculiar tingling in her body. She liked it so much she scarcely bothered to hide it.”

When Siss reaches Unn’s house the atmosphere is turned up to eleven, and the scene where they sit together in Unn’s bedroom is so highly charged that the pages crackle. Everything is suggested and implied, but nothing stated, even in their elliptical dialogue. (“There’s something I want to tell you. I’ve never said it to anyone.” “Would you have said it to your mother?” “No.” “Will you say it now?” “No.”) Eventually the evening, the encounter, ends, Siss runs home and the girls are separated. We are still less than 30 pages into the book but already I feel constrained from discussing more of the plot – even in re-reading, there are many surprises and turns here that it would be unfair to disclose.

There is one chapter from Unn’s point of view, which is central to the book. Partly this is because it introduces us to the ice palace of the title, with a heady line in singing, ringing prose:

From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky; they grew as she thought about them. She was intoxicated. The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say. The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.

But it is also key because it’s so hard to tell the difference between this chapter, featuring Unn, and the previous ones featuring Siss. The two are represented like two halves of one body, with all the questions that arise from that: how do they depend on one another? What happens if they are separated?

What follows Unn’s visit to the ice palace is a narrative that in some ways is traditional – a mystery, a quest, suspense – but doesn’t follow any pattern we are familiar with. There is plenty about the close-knit community of village life in Norway, with all the balance of support and oppression that that implies, and one of the beauties of the book is the rural warmth even in chapter titles – “Snow covered bridges”, “woodwind players” – which provide a haiku-ish quality (“like the water drop and the twig”) and a reassuring warmth amid a coolly threatening story. There is real force in the sober beauty of lines like these, when Unn’s aunt and Siss say goodbye for the last time:

They were floating, almost at one with the darkness, reflecting no light. Their footsteps could not be heard. But their breathing could, and perhaps the heart. They mingled with other almost nocturnal stirrings, like a small vibration in long wires.

The language in The Ice Palace is perfectly clear, but it resists straightforward interpretation. I’ll resist the obvious iceberg comparisons, but the style is ice-like in being simultaneously translucent and opaque. Sadly there is no introduction or other supplementary material in this new edition, which is exactly what a troubling text like this needs. We can turn, though, to Doris Lessing’s review when the book was first published in English, which is valuable particularly for its discussion of the community in which Versaas lived his whole life, and how the book must be seen in this context. Robert Macfarlane is a fan too (“it dazzled me with its discretion, precision and angular icy beauties” – typically summing the book up better in half a dozen words more effectively than I can in a thousand), as is Max Porter, who is “surprised it isn’t the most famous book in the world.” Well, I can see why it’s not, but it would be nice if this reissue gives more deserved attention to this entirely mysterious, entirely satisfying story.