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Dimitri Verhulst - Madame Verona Comes Down the Hil
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Evie
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 01, 2011 10:25 am    Post subject: Dimitri Verhulst - Madame Verona Comes Down the Hil  Reply with quote

I realised as I was reading this book that on the radio version of A Good Read, panellists choose books they have already read and want to share with others.  I didn't think about that when I chose this book, and I think we have all chosen books that we have not read before - but given the state of the TBR pile, it's a good opportunity to read something new.

I ordered this book a while ago after Marita mentioned Dimitri Verhulst, of whom I had not previously heard, but she made him sound interesting.  I looked him up, and could only find this title available in English, but it looked appealing so I ordered a copy, and am very glad I did.  In the discussion on Raymond Chandler, I noted that I felt not enough attention was paid to style by too many contemporary authors - but as my English grammar teacher used to say, to all good rules there are exceptions, and I have immediately been presented with one.

It is always slightly tricky talking about style when you are reading a book in translation, and you have to trust the translator to convey the author's voice - it's a demanding role, but while I can't vouch for the accuracy of this translation, David Colmer has certainly provided a translation that seems excellent - elegant and with no trace of 'translationese' that I could find.  A good translation is one where you don't realise you are reading a translation - hence the neglect of translators in reviews and general discussion about translated books - and this one certainly succeeds on that level.

If I seem to be waffling, it is because despite having loved this book, I am not sure where to start in terms of kicking off a discussion!  So I will just have to give my rambling thoughts and hope that Gareth and Marita can fill in what really needs to be said.

It is the story of a woman whose husband commits suicide after discovering that he has cancer (though this diagnosis is given by the local vet, since few people in the village can be bothered to travel further to find a doctor - and the diagnosis is given a slight question mark by the narrator.  The book is darkly comic at times!).  The men in the village - a village where there are very few women, since female babies are extremely rare - hope that once she has finished grieving, she will bestow her favours on them.  She lives a little remotely, at the top of one of three hills in the village, which gives her the aura of a princess in a tower - the book is offered on the first page as a fable.  Excitement is aroused when there are reports that she has been seen with a man, though no one can confirm whether the pair were holding hands or not.  It turns out that the man is a maker of musical instruments, and Madame Verona wants him to make a cello out of the tree from which her husband hanged himself - he was a composer, she a musician.  The cello-maker is reluctant as the tree is the wrong kind of wood, but she insists; she has to wait 20 years for the wood to dry out sufficiently, but she does get her cello - as inferior as its maker feared.

But all of this is given as a series of movements back and forth in time - it is not a linear narrative, though it is told in a storytelling fashion.  The incident of the cello in fact comes late in the book, so we get no sense of the 20-year wait, we are simply told that is how long it has taken.

I loved the non-linear storytelling, which added to the quirkiness of the book.  It is a book with wry humour, but underneath a sad story and the poignancy when it breaks through is moving.  We never really get to know Madame Verona from the inside - characterisation is not a major feature in that sense - but when we piece together the events of her life, there is a richness that is surprising in such a short and seemingly lightly-told tale.

One thing I have not yet mentioned is the fact that Madame Verona and her husband - and then she alone when her husband has died - seem to be a magnet for stray dogs.  She does not give them a home, she says, they find her and make their home with her.  I am still trying to work out what all of that means!  But the dogs are wonderful.

There is a lot of sexual humour in the novel - especially when we get to the cello.

Quote:
Of all the reasons girls young and old have for lovingy and beautifully spreading their legs, playing the cello has received by far the least attention and here too precious little of that shortfall will be made up.


That gives a flavour of the sort of humour the book contains - sentences that often made me laugh out loud - quietly, but out loud nevertheless.  Then a few pages later, this is the source of something much deeper:

Quote:
She played.  It sounded ugly, but she played.  Faure.  The pieces she had played with her lover at the academy, but now her cheeks weren't red.  She pressed herself tight against the instrument to feel the vibrations.  And if she closed her eyes, it was not to enjoy the results of her own fingering, but to hear the piano that Monsieur Potter would have played to accompany her.  That was how she would do it every evening from now on.  She would sit at the window with legs spread and play the cello.  An ensemble that wasn't, a duet with absence.  Talking to the non-existent, which might be the only correct definition of very deep prayer.


(M. Potter is her husband - the villagers give him this name, knowing him to be artistic and assuming he must be a potter...)

One of the things that struck me about the book is that references to the modern world always seemed surprising.  Perhaps it's the rural setting, perhaps it's the fable-like quality of the story, but it feels as though it is set in the past - then we get references to televisions and other modern technology, and realise it is a contemporary story.

I was also struck by the fact of the steep hills - Marita, does Belgium have steep hills?  The book reminded me often of Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver, which I read a while ago, and I kept being surprised to remember we weren't in Scandinavia - because of all the snow, and the hills, and the forest, it kept feeling to my ignorant brain as though it was set much further north!  It does have things in common with that book, in terms of characters and story, on a superficial level, so the comparison kept coming easily to mind.

And another question for Marita - I have often wondered about the relationship between the French and Dutch/Flemish languages in Belgium.  Verhulst writes in Dutch, but there are lots of references to French, and I am interested in how those two languages - and the cultures they represent - fit together.

Anyway, for me, a lovely book - a Tardis book, short in physicaly terms but full of richness and an opening up of life on the inside.  I loved the style, with its quirky humour and warmth and understated wit, I loved the structure of the book, and I loved Madame Verona.  I seem to have written quite a lot without saying much at all - I still don't know how to analyse a book like this, but am happy simply to enjoy it!  And really looking forward to what Chibiabos and Marita made of it - even if you both hated it!


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 01, 2011 4:23 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for this excellent summing up of the book. It is hard to write about a book that, despite an apparent focus - Madame Verona's descent of the hill - achieves a portrait of its characters and its place through small brush strokes. We do get a clear impression of an existence by the end of the book, but it's not what you'd call a conventional narrative.

I really liked the book, with perhaps a few small reservations, the nature of which I can't quite put my finger on. That seems fitting for this book. One of the best things about it is the way it evokes the intangible. My favourite passage describes M. Potter's relationship with trees. I'll copy a bit when I have the book to hand. Obviously M. Potter and the trees themselves are tangible, but our relationship with nature is a subject that returns throughout (inevitably, with Mme. Verona handicapped by the snow). I'd been thinking about trees a lot when I read the book last week, because a horse chestnut tree at the top of a road near where I live has just been chopped down because of disease. I mourn its passing - frequently I would see squirrels scampering along its branches as I neared home. And I realise now that it provided me with the first proof of autumn each year, when, one morning in September or October, I would see fallen conkers on the pavement and in the gutter. It's sad that it has taken the loss of this tree to make me realise its value. And yet its absence has also been enlightening - literally, as it affects the amount of light that is shed on the avenue. It's much brighter in the mornings now. A subtle change, but a noticeable one, such as might have been remarked upon by Verhulst.

The passage I'm talking about ends with the beautiful image of M. Potter's impression of palm trees as 'deformed pineapples', a funny thought, but not without its poetry. There's a strong strain of humour throughout the book, often quite dark, most of which seems to translate effectively into English. I particularly liked the story of the man who rations his cigars by marking on each one the time of smoking, which means that the time of his death can be determined precisely but not the date!

Sorry, just a few thoughts to begin with - I do have plenty more to write (hopefully about the book rather than about me and trees...) when I can find the time (perhaps tomorrow), and will reply to your own thoughts too.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 02, 2011 10:11 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I also felt there was some reservation about it that I couldn't define, but put it down to my lapses in concentration - so it's interesting to hear you felt the same, may not just be me missing something!

Trees are my favourite things on the planet (apart from Bob Dylan), and I am also a lapsed celllist (neglected cello looking at me mournfully from the corner of my study as I type), and I did connect with both those themes on a personal level.  I am sorry about your chestnut tree - they are magnificent trees, both when they bloom in the spring and when the conkers and the leaves start to fall - the demise of a tree is always very sad.  They have been blighted this year, so I hope the disease that is affecting them will be stopped.  So yes, that relationship with nature is something I loved too - and the subtlety of Verhulst's depiction of that.  As you say, humour and poetry and darkness all work together, which is one of the best things about the book for me.


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Marita



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Location: Flanders, Belgium

PostPosted: Wed Nov 02, 2011 12:25 pm    Post subject: Re: Dimitri Verhulst - Madame Verona Comes Down the Hil Reply with quote

Evie wrote:

I was also struck by the fact of the steep hills - Marita, does Belgium have steep hills?  

And another question for Marita - I have often wondered about the relationship between the French and Dutch/Flemish languages in Belgium.  Verhulst writes in Dutch, but there are lots of references to French, and I am interested in how those two languages - and the cultures they represent - fit together.


For a small country Belgium is rather varied. From the coast going more or less south-east you have first the flat country (Flemish) where I live, then a middle part (between 100 and 300 m) and last a high part (300 to 694 m). The fictional village of Oucwègne is set in this last (French speaking) part. Verhulst now lives in that part of Belgium.
The hills can be quite steep. A few years ago a lorry missed a no entry sign and came at the top of a steep village street. There was no way of turning back but the brakes of the lorry couldn’t cope with the steepness of the street. The driver couldn’t prevent his lorry from hurtling down the hill and ploughing into a house.
It’s not so densely populated and has got forests. When it snows you can even go skiing.
You ask how the two languages and cultures fit together. That takes some explaining but the fact that 508 days after the election we still haven’t got a government gives you some idea about the increasing difficulty of keeping Belgium together.
Belgium would have become wholly French if some Flemish writers hadn’t been proud of the history of their language and started a Flemish movement. This eventually forced the acceptance of Dutch as a second national language. Flemish people are very willing to learn French; Walloons are not so keen to learn Dutch. When I broke my wrist on a station platform in Brussels I was taken to a nearby hospital. In the bilingual capital of my own country I couldn’t be helped in Dutch. I could go on a rant here so I’ll stop and concentrate on Madame Verona.

It is not easy to know where to begin but I’ll start with Madame Verona going down the hill to die. Death and aging is rather a theme in this book. Everyone who lives on one of the hills knows that one day it will become a prison. There’s the image of the man crawling on hands and feet up the hill, trying to stave off loneliness and death as long as possible. I think it’s the same man Chibiabos talks about, the man with the rationed cigars, with the hour written on them which allows the doctor to determine time of death. For the date she allowed herself a margin of 10 days. One sentence to describe a sad and lonely old age and death.

The village itself is dying. No babies are born; the nappies stocked by the shopkeeper eventually are bought by the elderly to deal with the first leakage. The last shop shuts as well. The old lady kept it open as long as possible to have somebody to talk to. Verhulst is very clever telling us she slowly let the blinds down for the last time, like flags after the Last Post. Then tells us not to think this was symbolic. She was so old the only thing she did with speed was decaying.

Then there was the strongest man with a booming voice who was taken to town by his children, powerless, all his strength gone.

I’ll have to leave it at that for now. I read this in Dutch of course and there were a few instances that made we wonder how something was translated. Amongst others the poem of chapter V.

Marita


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 02, 2011 1:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

E/V, the bit you quoted about women opening their legs reminded me when I read it in the book of the famous Beecham quip to the lady cellist that goes something like: 'Madam, you have something between your legs capable of giving men great pleasure, and all you can do is sit there and scratch it.'

The sexual frankness of the book is arresting - perhaps it's the juxtaposition of sex and old age that one doesn't expect. I certainly don't begrudge the elderly their sex lives - more power to them, I say - and I hope I don't give the impression of having been offended, but I think it's probably something I would have chosen not to read about if given the choice Smile (I blanched a bit when I reached the passage where Madame Verona performs oral sex on the dying Monsieur Potter, but I think I might have done that even if I had known they were twenty years younger than I thought, which wasn't clear at the time.) There is also some bad language that seems a little at odds with the general elegiac tone of the book. Perhaps this is simply something that doesn't quite translate, or perhaps it is connected to the sex - why should these people not grow old disgracefully? The aging male inhabitants of Oucwègne are not genteel or retiring. They are excited by the prospect of Madame Verona being back on the market, as it were, and why not?

Here's the bit I liked about Monsieur Potter and the trees:

Although his father had hanged himself from a branch at a relatively young age,
Monsieur Potter was touchingly ignorant when it came to trees. He couldn't tell
a beech from an oak and could just manage to distinguish between a spruce
and a pine, at least until the Christmas tree industry got involved and started
growing all kinds of intermediary varieties, in bizarre colours as well. Of course,
as a child, when the arrival of autumn prompted the headmaster to set poetic
projects, he had put together the occasional herbarium, drawing up separate
sections of exercise books for serrated and lobed, and noting the names of the
trees under the corresponding leaves after first drying them for days on end all
over the living room under piles of magazines and thick books. The colours of
death had surprised and moved him as much as his youth allowed, but his
arboreal knowledge never outlasted the herbarium itself. Willows, he could
recognize. They were often solitary and polled, lonely but stubborn, standing up
to the wind for years. The willow was a tree with the determination of a
peasant, a will that could only be broken by a lightning bolt. He recognized
weeping willows easiest, but that was because a teacher had once told him
that the tree owed its name to the way its branches drooped, as if it were
staring at the ground in sorrow while the others tried to claw the moon. The
story annoyed him, because he had always thought of weeping willows as
cheerful and graceful. Nothing like the pollard willow, his favourite -- so different,
in fact, that he found it bizarre that trees with such dissimilar characters could
belong to the same family.

All this could give the impression that he actually did know something about
trees, but he was still never able to tell us what kind of tree his father had
hanged himself from. That was probably for the best, because otherwise he
might have been unable to resist searching for associations and meanings that
were possibly non-existent. For the sake of completeness, we should mention
his knowledge of palm trees, which he mainly knew from movies and thought of
as deformed pineapples.


More to follow...


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Marita



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PostPosted: Wed Nov 02, 2011 9:52 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Chibiabos83 wrote:

The sexual frankness of the book is arresting - perhaps it's the juxtaposition of sex and old age that one doesn't expect. I certainly don't begrudge the elderly their sex lives - more power to them, I say - and I hope I don't give the impression of having been offended, but I think it's probably something I would have chosen not to read about if given the choice Smile (I blanched a bit when I reached the passage where Madame Verona performs oral sex on the dying Monsieur Potter, but I think I might have done that even if I had known they were twenty years younger than I thought, which wasn't clear at the time.) There is also some bad language that seems a little at odds with the general elegiac tone of the book. Perhaps this is simply something that doesn't quite translate, or perhaps it is connected to the sex - why should these people not grow old disgracefully? The aging male inhabitants of Oucwègne are not genteel or retiring. They are excited by the prospect of Madame Verona being back on the market, as it were, and why not?


Chibiabos, having read that part again I’m sure it’s not oral sex Madame Verona is having with her husband. I know it says ‘swallows’ and I would like to see the full English translation. In Dutch it says ‘langs onder’ which is below rather than above. Roughly translated it also says she didn’t want to let go ‘even when it had become too floppy to grip it with her muscles’. A mouth can hold anything, floppy or not, but her muscles below need something more substantial to grip.

I’m afraid I don’t blanch when reading this. In my teens I picked Gangreen by Jef Geeraerts from a list my Dutch teacher had provided. After a couple of chapters I’d had enough. This sounds like romantic fiction by comparison.

Having read other books by Verhulst I know he uses bad language. He’s more likely to use a coarse word than a cleaned up version. Possibly it is because of his background where coarse bad language was part of everyday speech. Perhaps here he wants to set the real world (as low as possible) against the fairy tale of love that endures beyond death.

Marita


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Thu Nov 03, 2011 2:26 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Marita, that section is unambiguous in the translation - Colmer mentions M. Potter's penis, where Verhulst, it seems, does not. But ignore me - I think I must just be a prude! Smile

In some ways this book might seem like a romantic idyll - beautiful remote village, old people playing table football and living a life full of the hope of love, eligible widow ripe for the taking - but in spite of hints at this, there is no undue romanticisation of the people's lives (and they do have sexual thoughts and swear, as noted above - the story doesn't feel unduly sanitised). As Marita rightly says, the village is dying, and the book is as much an elegy for Oucwègne and for a particular way of life, as it is the story of Madame Verona and her husband. It reminded me of J.L. Carr's tremendous A Month in the Country both in its evocation of a kind of serene, bucolic life and in its smallness of scale and the attention it pays to small but telling details.

Something that interests me - how did you read the book? It's easily of a size that would permit it to be read in a single sitting, but I read it quite slowly over about three days. I think it may be a book that benefits from a slow reading.


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Marita



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PostPosted: Thu Nov 03, 2011 8:37 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Verhulst does not use the word penis here – he uses the word ‘geslacht’ which my dictionary translates as ‘member’. I think it’s on purpose. Everything related to the love (and lovemaking) of Madame Verona and her husband is written in more gentle terms, more poetic.

I did read the book slowly, writing down things that struck me, some unusual (archaic) words that I had to look up. I noticed that he chose his words carefully. In the last paragraph of chapter XI he writes ‘we misgissen ons’ (we guess wrongly) where normally I would have expected ‘we vergissen ons’ (we are wrong). It’s a very subtle difference but it is there. As if he wants to say that we can only guess (rightly or wrongly) what Madame Verona thinks, does or intends to do but we can never know.

Marita


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Evie
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PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2011 7:37 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

So sorry not to have joined in over the past day or two. Thanks so much for your post, Marita - insightful as ever!  And it's great to have someone who has read the book in its original language, that adds another dimension.  Yes, that line about the death of the cigar man is very poignant - a fine example of how Verhulst undercuts the humour with genuine sadness.

I was not at all shocked by the sexual frankness - I think it's very difficult to write well about sex, and Verhulst does write about it well, I think.  He stays within the overall mood and tone of the novel, which has a lightness of touch, but manages to convey some intensely erotic experiences, explicit but economically told.  I do think he manages, in general, to convey a lot in succinct but stylish prose.

I too read it relatively slowly - given that, as you say, Chib, it could be read in one sitting in terms of lenght; I read it in five or six sessions.  It's a short book, but I don't think it's a quick read.

Marita, thanks very much for your info about Belgium - topographical and political.  The fact that Verhulst is Dutch-speaking but lives in a French-speaking region makes sense of that particular aspect of the book.  The political difficulties you mention also give more meaning to the lovely episode where the cow (a Blonde d'Aquitaine - how lovely!) becomes the mayor or Oucwegne!  I love the ending of that chapter:

Quote:
Cows were harbingers of beauty, it's true.  But until that moment their holiness had been known only in India.


Another favourite line - completely unrelated - is an example of what I think is the wisdom woven into the tale.  Early on, when Madame Verona and Monsieur Potter are deciding whether to buy their house, there is this passage:

Quote:
There was their house and there was Oucwegne.  Full of villagers they didn't know, who dared to live hermetic lives, if the stories told by city-dwellers could be believed.  It would be a leap in the dark.  'I could die here.' she said, and Monsieur Potter lit a cigarette at the window and rested his gaze on a host of ancient trees whose bark provided a winter home for as yet unfamiliar insects.  'Absolutely,' he replied, 'this is a house you could die in and it's a house you could be unhappy in.  We'd be mad not to take it.'

As peculiar as his line of reasoning may seem, there is something instructive about it.  Someone who is buying a house for life and is happy has to realize that sooner or later unhappiness could rear its head.  In the form of disease, old age, whatever.  So yes, the question people need to ask when buying a house is, 'Can I be unhappy here too?'  And he meant that this landscape could absorb his bouts of melancholy better than any other.  They were growing less common, those bouts, perhaps because they were more in keeping with a certain youthfulness he had gradually left behind, but he still preferred to take them into account.  A leap in the dark, to tumble into light.  'We'll buy it,' and they filled the empty room with the echoing cries of their lovemaking, smoothed the creases out of their clothes and drove to the notary's office.


Wonderful!

I will copy out the poem, Marita, later today, so that you can compare it with the Dutch.


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2011 10:45 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

When I wrote that the sexual content was arresting, I think I meant more that its presence in the book was unexpected to me than that the sex itself was shocking (which it wasn't). I'd expected the book to be a poignant, gentle, possibly sentimental story, perhaps deliberately sidestepping sex. What it turned out to be was something richer and more interesting than that might have been.

The episode with the cow becoming mayor is delightful, isn't it? The kind of thing that would translate well to the screen.

E/V, you're quite right when you say it's a short book but not a quick read. I think the shifting about in time demands a bit more attention from the reader, but it is rewarding when you find the picture of the place and people has been assembled in your mind, and that everything hangs together.

The ending itself is beautiful in its quietness and unassumingness, isn't it? The way that Madame Verona descends the hill and peacefully sits down to die and is then discovered. The matter-of-factness with which it is related adds to its beauty.



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