Thoughts: Vera

vera

I finally made use of my kindle again, for the disconcerting reason of not having any unread novels at my place. This has never happened to me before, and frankly, I’m still a bit shocked. But since I only moved to my current place for the first semester and am moving again (at least in the same city) soon, I only packed one small box of books. And then I found out I was out of unread books at night on a weekend…well I’m so happy there are great free e-books and that I own a kindle. Deciding on one book wasn’t easy, but I finally started Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim. I had this vague notion of having read a short story by her about Germans and a pension- and then realized that was Katherine Mansfield! And then after googling von Arnim I remembered why I had never tried her works, it’s the plants. I like flowers in my home, but other than that gardens and plants and such are not really my thing. Luckily, Vera is a plant-lite book. So, Vera is my first von Arnim experience and I have to say I absolutely loved her writing and characterization and want to try another one soon (Any recommendations? I thought of trying Fräulein Schmidt next).

Vera is about Lucy Entwistle, who is vacationing with her father, when he suddenly dies. Then, she meets Everard Wemyss, who has just lost his wife under tragic circumstances, and they bond, fall in love and get married. That sounds all very romantic complete with a happy ending, but that’s actually only the first part of the novel. It gets very much darker, and quite sad after that. I’m horrible with spoiler warnings, simply forget about them when I want to discuss a book, but even if I won’t reveal the ending, if you don’t want to know more about what happens and why the tone gets darker, better stop reading, I guess.

When Lucy and Wemyss get married, she comes to learn that her husband is controlling, has a temper and sulks like a child. She is still very much in love with him, but his character makes it nearly impossible to hold onto those feelings. Having only recently lost a father who protected Lucy, she is very much an innocent, and in part relishes Wemyss’ protectiveness. But he infantilizes her, calls her his “little one” and his “baby” (part of what first attracted him to Lucy was her girlish hairstyle and that she looked so young, much younger than her 22 years) and will not allow her any time to herself or make any decisions.

As Lucy mostly fell in love, because she understood Wemyss to be as bereaved as she was, she is horrified that he takes her to the house where his first wife died and never even thought of changing anything and later flatly refuses to. Thus, Vera, named after the first wife, is somewhat of a forerunner to DuMaurier’s Rebecca. The books are completely different, and yet like in Rebecca, Vera’s presence seems to linger. Thus, Lucy has to eat under the watchful gaze of the life-sized portrait of Wemyss’ first wife and her room is now Lucy’s. However, there is no Mrs. Danvers and as her husband turns out to be a completely different person and the love is difficult to hold onto, Lucy rather takes comfort in Vera’s lingering presence (for Vera was married to Wemyss for 15 years).

I really enjoyed the way Lucy was only first portrayed as somewhat simple, the intellectual circle of her father and their discussions were something she never felt part of and freely admits to finding their arguments too difficult to comprehend and too exhausting to follow. But, Wemyss, whom she first considers so wonderful, because he likes to keep things simple and has a clear-cut black and white view of the world, completely resistant to change, begins to feel strange to her and Lucy comes to realize the importance of ideas and discussions for herself. I really liked that she wasn’t simple, but instead grew when she finally experienced life outside of her father’s influence, even if her marriage is hell. Wemyss in contrast is basically a bully and the baby he always calls his wife.

The other character of importance is Lucy’s aunt, a spinster, who wants the best for Lucy, but also feels that as an old spinster, she cannot decide for her young niece who is so in love. While the smart, spinster aunt is a stereotypical figure, I really appreciated how von Arnim’ characterization of her was complex, even if she provides readers with something of a heroine character, who we can cheer for and sympathize with. Because that is not really possible with Lucy, who is trapped in a marriage, and not really the person to take a stand and be decisive. Lucy’s portrayal is great exactly because of that, but I still appreciated Miss Entwistle.

One other thing I loved, von Arnim knows how books should be treated! Absolutely loved this passage:

“She was accustomed to the most careless familiarity in intercourse with books, to books loose everywhere, books overflowing out of their shelves, books in every room, instantly accessible, friendly books, books used to being read aloud, with their hospitable pages falling open at a touch.”

(The context: Wemyss has a library of books he doesn’t read, what matters is that they are the best and most expensive editions and he keeps them behind glass doors, which he keeps locked with only him having the key.)

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!)

Review: Schachnovelle/ Chess

First things first, sorry if I confused you with my August in Books post, that was from last year, and I was only trying to edit some posts that I imported from Vox, but I think it showed up in readers. Sorry! Is there any way to do this without having them pop up in feeds etc?

Anyway, on to the review. There is something very intense and satisfying about reading a novella. Schachnovelle (translated as Chess and sometimes as The Royal Game) by Stefan Zweig is even called novella (Schachnovelle = chess novella) and it is a dark tale about psychological abyss.

Schachnovelle tells the story of the chess game between Czentovic, a slow and almost robot-like champion, and Dr. B, who claims not to have played since school, but who is nonetheless able to keep the chess champion on his toes. Intrigued, the I-narrator asks Dr. B to tell him how he came to be such a formidable chess player without having played in years. And Dr. B tells him about being imprisoned by the Gestapo, about spending months in a room without anything to occupy him, in other words about the torture of sensory deprivation. By chance he finds a chess manual and reads it over and over again, at some point starting to play the game against himself in his mind. He becomes obsessed with chess, and suffers from chess fever, as a doctor calls it, and is warned not to play ever again. But then on the ship, he plays one last time, against the champion Czentovic, to test himself. Only the narrator and the reader are aware of the magnitude of this game.

What Zweig depicts in this novella is not the mass-murder the Nazis committed, but the psychological torture that the individual suffers. The isolation and sensory deprivation that Dr.B is put through is at the heart of the story, and Zweig manages to make this story within a story darkly chilling and very intense. He easily conveys the horror of the psychological terror Dr. B suffers, and the relief he experiences when he finally finds something to read, even if it is only a chess manual. While reading this story, I kept wondering if sensory deprivation  would be even worse for us, who live in a time where we are constantly overloaded with input. Would we lose our minds more quickly? The absence of stimuli tends to make me very nervous, and I know that wherever I am, I always look for words and text. The horror of what was done to Dr. B is perhaps that it might appear like nothing was done to him, that he was lucky compared to those who suffered physical torture. But Schachnovelle attests that Dr. B’s isolation affected him so deeply, that it ruins his life. The chess game between him and Czentovic at the end is a nerve-wreaking show-down. Zweig makes opponents of two very different types, one quick, nervous and creative and the other achingly slow and lethargic.

Stefan Zweig was a brilliant Austrian writer who went into exile in Brazil when the Nazis took power. He committed suicide together with his wife in 1942. He has written several great novellas, Amok is especially satisfying.

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!