Tag Archives: European Fiction

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

5 stars


I planned to spend Sunday reading through extracts from the Waterstone’s Eleven choices, that I picked up on Thursday, but instead gave in to my desire to finish the last 80 pages of the WONDERFUL Eline Vere.

Pushkin Press, 2010 edition (first published in 1889), 540 pages - personal library

Thank you, thank you to my ‘Secret Santa’ Armen (hmm.. not so secret!) who gave me this Pushkin Press translated Dutch classic novel by Louis Couperus at December’s Riverside Readers book group. I have thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in this delicious doorstop of a novel for the past three weeks. Before I continue, I want to do a little plug for Pushkin Press. I’ve only read two novels by this publisher of translated European literature, but this, and Journey by Moonlight have completely won me over as an advocate for their titles – Literary gems, beautifully bound quality paperbacks with yummy illustrated covers in muted tones. (NB neither of these were sent by the publisher – I just really dig this publisher!) Anyhow, to the novel itself…

My experience of reading Eline Vere was a bit like watching a very good period drama series on the television. A sumptuous visual experience conjured up by descriptions of the vivid colours of dress and opulent surroundings of well-to-do members of Dutch society at the close of the 19th century. The narrative is frequently broken up by intimate tête-à- têtes between the different characters, sometimes philosophical, sometimes frivolous, occasionally candid and cutting. This creates the impression of multiple little scenes, so that although this is long book it is broken up into enjoyable and manageable segments.

I haven’t gone straight into describing the plot because although there is a central character and several plot-lines, this book is really driven by a set of circumstances and the relationships between different characters and how they react to each other. There is much discussion of the role of fate in this novel and yet although the main character Eline, comes to believe that her future is pre-destined, what Couperus seems to play with as a device is really the idea of chance – how a word uttered or held back can make a mark on a person’s future, which can be indelible depending on the nature of the person. And this idea of a persons nature is really key to the novel as it centres around a young woman who despite having everything in her favour – riches, beauty, grace and intelligence – is unable to take control of her own will to the extent that she undermines her own chances of happiness.

Eline is an incredibly complex character. A less skilful author would be unable to gain the reader’s empathy for this charming yet doleful figure. How frustrating she should be, but yet I was sympathetic to her because despite orchestrating her own misery she genuinely seemed paralysed by her mental state. Couperus’s subtlety in conveying each characters’ core ‘being’, giving the reader insight into their mind is almost magical and it was a genuine pleasure to be introduced to the contrasting personalities in the novel. I loved the outwardly frivolous yet wilful Frederique (Freddie) and revelled in the descriptions of young Lili Verstraten aware and happy with her own indolence –

“She was never bored, even when she was idle. On the contrary, she would sit back and enjoy the notions drifting through her mind: rose petals wafting on a gentle breeze, soap bubbles, fragile and iridescent.”

But as you have probably determined by my earlier comments Eline Vere is not simply a frothy book. Couperus’ insight into people, and their sense of self-awareness is remarkable. His writing is beautifully descriptive yet well paced. Themes of love, free-will, spirituality and psychology are interwoven deftly into the story. This isn’t a novel to consume in one sitting – as that would be rather too much, like eating a whole pile of profiteroles! When enjoyed at a languid pace however, this is a richly rewarding read.

Has anyone read any of Couperus’ other novels? Can you recommend any translated foreign classics?

Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal

Stone in a Landslide, is a novella by Maria Barbal who, born in 1949 is considered the most influential living Catalan author and has written eight novels. Admittedly, I’d never heard of her but when this slimline volume popped through the post, I was drawn to the synopsis:

The beginning of the 20th century: 13-year-old Conxa leaves her home village in the Pyrenees to work for her childless aunt. After years of hardship she finds love with Jaume – a love that will be thwarted by the Spanish Civil War. Approaching her own death, Conxa looks back on a life in which she has lost everything except her own indomitable spirit.

The fact that she had won several awards and a quick scan through to get a sense of Barbal’s writing style gave me confidence that this story might be a little gem.

From the synopsis, I expected drama and a complicated love story. The drama is there, underneath the surface, but very subtly conveyed. The character is looking back on her life – at her departure from her childhood home at young age, the experience of falling in love and raising a child and of being caught up in events caused by the Spanish Civil War while not having much understanding of why it was happening. While there were many poignant memories and moments in the book, I felt that Conxa’s voice maintained a gentle detached quality which conveyed realistically, the perspective of a woman at the end of her life.

Barbal’s writing is simple but not simplistic, which makes for a fluid and enjoyable read. The best way that I can describe this style is ‘streamlined’ as the experiences, thoughts and impressions of the protagonist are captured in short chapters and images that provoke sympathy with the characters in the book. I really enjoyed the way that she describes her careworn mother;

“Her tiredness must have held her trapped, like a sparrow in a snare.”

Female characters are important in the story and are a strong influence on Conxa, whether it be her hardworking mother, spirited aunt Tia or her friend Delina, suspicious of men and the “illusion of love”. Barbal explores the traditional roles of men and women in rural Catalonia and how a woman is so central to home-life when Conxa is dreaming of having a son:

“A boy will be a man. And a man has the strength to deal with the land, the animals, to build. But I didn’t see it so clearly. When I thought about the families I knew well, I saw the woman as the foundation stone. If I thought about my home, it was my mother who did all the work or organised others to do it. Not to mention Tia. The woman had the children, raised them, harvested, took care of the pigsty, the chicken coop, the rabbits. She did the housework and so many other things…”

I also loved the imagery of the environment, in particular one passage where Conxa talks about picking mushrooms – I could almost smell the earth and feel her joy in the simple pleasure of it all.

I only felt a little sad that the book didn’t paint a better picture of Jaume, who Conxa falls in love with. While the relationship forms an important part of the book at times I felt that I didn’t know him at all. This is why I would say that the women in Conxa’s life were more rounded characters and also more central to the book  than the love story.

Stone in a Landslide was a pleasure to read. I was  impressed at how the writing was emotive but restrained, and it was descriptive without being indulgent. I really heard Conxa’s voice. I felt I was listening to her experiences which were that of a lifetime covered in just a few pages. A wonderful glimpse into a life of beauty and of upheaval.

My rating:

8 out of 10

More information about Peirene Press can be found here.

What short books have you enjoyed lately?