Europe Between The Wars

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr. Kellet. ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.’ ‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’ ‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

A preternaturally wise ten-year-old Ursula Todd offers us this succinct thematic summation of Life After Life near the book’s end, after she has lived and died many times.

A palimpsest is also the perfect metaphor for Kate Atkinson’s luminous novel. Its multiple layers of theme and plot pile up like shadows, visible through the translucent onion-skin of imagination. It is a novel of faerie tales—the fox, the wolf, and little girls snatched while walking through the woods. It is about the brutal realities of war—Atkinson brilliantly captures the interminable months of the Blitz, where nightly bombings are endured with aplomb and scooping up bucketsful of your neighbor’s flesh is just what you do to get on to the next day. It is a story of a family—a familiar motif in Atkinson’s literary worlds—with a set of messy, vexing, endearing characters whose personalities remain constant throughout the crazy quilt of this narrative, even if their outcomes change, depending upon the version of life they are living.

Ursula Todd is born at Fox Corner on a snowy night in February 1910, the third child of an upper-middle class family ensconced in the genteel English countryside. She dies at birth. She lives, just barely. She drowns as a toddler. She is rescued at the last minute, clutched by the hand of an amateur painter before the current sweeps her out to sea. She is taken by the Spanish flu just days after Armistice. She is raped on her sixteenth birthday and dies after a botched abortion. She is kissed tenderly by the neighbor boy, a Sweet Sixteen gift beyond her wildest hope. She marries an English psychopath who murders her. She marries a German intellectual. She can never have children. She has a little girl named Frieda who becomes the pet of Eva Braun. She is trapped in Germany during the war and dies from her countrymen’s bombs. She survives the terror during and the deprivation after World War II in London, rising through the ranks of British civil service to become a model for working women in the 1960’s. She assassinates Hitler in 1930, becoming a martyr for peace and the prevention of a Holocaust that no one could believe possible in the desperate years after the Great War.

The first snippets of life and death and life again are jarring. Atkinson opens the door wider each time until you are inside the maze and there is no turning back. But she doesn’t abandon you to aimless wandering. Through the constancy of the characters, you follow the crumbs of her tense and nimble plotting. Her writing, as always, is sheer pleasure to read, with lovely and supple language. She balances the queer and violent with humor and tenderness, leaving her lipstick on the glass with those particular Atkinson markers: affection for children, dogs, and an essential Britishness that mixes poignancy with a wry self-regard.

Atkinson leaves room for the reader and the characters to approach reality on their own terms. Ursula shifts with each life, responding to a sense that if she just did this, something fundamental will change. Is she aware that she is reliving her life? Are her choices conscious, or is it an awareness buried deep inside her, a sixth sense that emerges as déjà vu? You’ve simply got to read this for yourself for the answers. But don’t expect any.

The more I think about this book—several days now after reluctantly closing the back cover—the more in awe I am of one of my favorite authors. Kate Atkinson has crafted a lyrical rendering of metaphysics and a brave manipulation of narrative structure that is at heart a wonderful story—albeit with layers as delicate and impermanent as a croissant’s and as delicious to consume. I’m still licking my fingers. Brava.

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Book Review: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable FeastA Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you haven't been to Paris, you just won't get A Moveable Feast... If you aren't already a fan of Hemingway, don't bother reading A Moveable Feast

Look, I'm struggling to get a start on this review and those were the first two statements that popped into my head. I don't know if they are true. I don't know if they are fair. What I do know it that this work - fiction, memoir, sketches, a polished diary - whichever of these it may be - wouldn't exist without Paris. Obviously, right? No, that's not what I mean. I mean Paris is to writers as Burgundy is to Pinot Noir. It's all about terroir - that sense of place, climate, geography, culture that shape the flavor and texture of a thing. You can make great wine out of pinot grown in Oregon, New Zealand, Chile - but it will never, ever approximate the glory of Burgundy. Writers can write with greatness anywhere in the world, but a writer in Paris - and goodness, a writer in the vintage years of the early-mid 1920's - is a singularly-blessed creature who may pour forth with words that change the world.

Hyperbole? Ah, well, I guess you've never been to Paris.

I bought a cheap, paperback copy of A Moveable Feast at Shakespeare and Company last winter. I'd spent the day retracing the steps of the Lost Generation through the 5eme and 6eme Arrondissements: the Luxembourg Gardens, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Rue Mouffetard, Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, La Place Contrescarpe, Rue Descartes, Quai des Grands-Augustins -- the haunts of Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford as they drank and smoked and wrote their way between the wars. Other than the now-phony tourist traps of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore and the relocated Shakespeare and Company bookshop (opened in its current location at 37 rue de la Bûcherie in 1951 after the original shop closed in 1941 during the Occupation of Paris), much is as I imagined it was in 1924. The light shines golden and bittersweet in the narrow streets, landlocked Parisians flock to chaises longues in the Luxembourg Gardens to soak up an unseasonably warm February sun, students at the Sorbonne crowd the coffee shops in between classes, smoking, flirting and speaking in a rapid-fire Parisian slang that I was hopeless to comprehend.

My paperback copy of A Moveable Feast is now dreadfully dog-eared. I have marked passage upon passage in which Hemingway talks about writing - he was so disciplined and therefore so productive - that weakened my knees: "I would stand and look out over the rooftops of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence, and go on from there."

or about Paris: "You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen."

or about wine "In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary... "

This is a collection of sketches of a writer as he remembers his happiest, purest days spent healing from the injuries and horrors of World War I, in love with a devoted wife and a round, sweet baby, being discovered by artists of influence and nurturing others through their own addictions and afflictions. Of course we know that Hemingway's own story does not end well. As he pens what will become the final paragraphs of A Moveable Feast many years later, he recognizes how fragile and temporary were those years: "But we were not invulnerable and that was the end of the first part of Paris, and Paris was never to be the same again although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed.... this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy."

Perhaps the one true condition of enjoying this memoir is that one must be an incurable romantic. An affliction I bear with pride.

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