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German Women Writers Fighting Against National Socialism

GermanLitMy third review for German Literature Month, organised and hosted for the fourth year in a row by Caroline and Lizzy, is a non-fiction book.  In fact, it’s one that I first read about on Caroline’s blog – so many thanks, Caroline, for bringing it to my attention!

verboten_-_verfemt_-_vertrieben-9783423346115Edda Ziegler’s ‘Verboten Verfemt Vertrieben’ (‘Forbidden/Ostracised/Banned’, sadly, only available in German) is a fascinating study of German-speaking women writers (many of them of Jewish origin, as one might expect) of the 1920/30s who were banned in Germany following the rise of the Nazis. I cannot quite do the book justice, as there are so many authors featured in it, as well as a discussion of the German literary scene during the Weimar Republic, WW2 and afterwards. Suffice it to say that it is encyclopedic, very well documented but also written in a lively, accessible manner.

Some of the women were well-known both then and now (Nelly Sachs, Else Lasker-Schüler, Anna Seghers), while others have drifted into obscurity (Mascha Kaléko, Hermynia Zur Mühlen, Rose Ausländer). The author follows their personal and literary journey across borders and oceans, overcoming language barriers, discrimination, prejudice and, in some cases, far too much self-sacrifice for the sake of their male partners.

‘They’ve  burnt my soul, destroyed my life, my youth, my sense of joy, they’ve extinguished my whole identity like a storm extinguishes a flame’ is how Hertha Nathorff, doctor and writer, describes the actions of the Nazis. There were three possible reactions to the persecutions they suffered: direct resistance, going into exile or committing to ‘inner exile’ (silence). Most of the women opted for the flight to another country, but there were few countries willing to accept them, so their life became one of endless waiting, false hopes and transient places.

‘Well, there were the wives…’ is the answer a German writer gave when he was asked how he managed to survive in exile. And the original phrase in German doesn’t sound like a loving testimony of eternal gratitude (‘Nun, man hatte ja eine Frau…’) but a cynical, throwaway statement of entitlement. The wives (or mistresses) were the ones who made the effort to learn the new language, gather together all the necessary paperwork, handle all the day-to-day administrative hassles, find a place to stay, make sure the family were clothed, shod, fed and sent to school, worry about the family members left behind and investigate in which country they could find refuge next, work in low-paid jobs for which they were blatantly overqualified so as to support the husband’s attempts to continue their careers. Under these circumstances, it is surprising that the women kept on writing: a true testament to their resilience, creativity and desire to ‘bear witness’.

This book might be worth a read next...

This book might be worth a read next…

However, many of the individual stories – almost all of them, in fact – are sad. Some women died in concentration camps (Gertrud Kolmar) or barely survived in Gurs, a camp for ‘aliens’ in the French Pyrenees (Adrienne Thomas, Käthe Hirsch). Most of the women were disillusioned, disappointed, felt an acute sense of loss. A few of the women suffered mental breakdowns: Nelly Sachs (paranoia), Irmgard Keun (alcoholism). Bertolt Brecht’s ‘harem’ of seduced, exploited and abandoned women – who collaborated with the playwright but were never acknowledged as co-authors – came as a complete surprise and shock to me.

Even before 1933, women’s literature had been disparaged in Germany, was certainly not quite on equal footing with that of the men. Many of these women had nevertheless enjoyed quite a bit of success with their writing. Yet even the strong, independent women who were committed to making a new creative life for themselves abroad were punished for their audacity. They lost their mother tongue, their most critical artistic tool, as well as the support of the publishing houses. Their ‘European’ writing style was not appreciated in Hollywood, although at least one of them, Vicki Baum, was reasonably successful there. However, she always considered her second career as a scriptwriter to be a ‘temporary breadwinning solution’, of questionable literary merit. Gina Kaus was also able to support her family with her earnings as a scriptwriter, but thought of herself as a ‘sell-out, a failure’, having lost the spark and motivation which led her to become the darling of the Viennese café culture. Even Hilde Spiel, the Austrian writer who became a journalist in Britain and published a number of books in English before returning to Vienna via Germany and becoming a ‘grande dame of German-speaking culture’, felt  that her career had taken a hit in exile and that she was never quite able to build on her earlier successes.

From Uni Potsdam archive.

From Uni Potsdam archive.

Outwardly, at least, Anna Seghers seems to come off lightly. She was active both politically and culturally while in exile in Mexico, producing some of her most poignant work during her years abroad. Moreover, as a committed Communist, she was welcomed with open arms in the GDR after the war (although it transpires that she would have preferred to settle in France, but was refused a visa). She won numerous prizes and honours in the 1960s/70s.  Dig a little deeper and her victories look a little more tarnished. She was the main breadwinner (as well as organiser, administrator, cook, cleaner) for her family throughout those difficult years, her husband having been described by some contemporaries as ‘Anna’s eighth cross’, an allusion to her novel ‘The Seventh Cross’. Although he also worked as a political agitator and teacher at the Workers’ University in Mexico, most of his work was unpaid, and he proved to be completely useless with any practical, everyday matters. He also had countless affairs and left Anna as soon as he established a foothold for himself in Mexico. When Anna returned to Europe after the war, she assumed that her husband would follow. He only came five years later, in 1952, accompanied by an American lover.  They never divorced and she supported his lover after his death, despite the fact that from the mid-60s onwards she herself was fragile and frequently hospitalised.

Aside from the very moving personal stories, Ziegler also discusses the rise of women writers in the rather patriarchal German literary world and makes many interesting observations about publishing then and now. For instance, even back in the 1920s there was much lamenting about a ‘book crisis’: inflation and depression, the fall of the ‘cultured’ bourgeoisie, the lure of the new media meant, according to famous German publisher Fischer, ‘that books have become the most dispensable objects of daily life… People do sports, go dancing, spend their evening hours in front of the radio or at the cinema, are busy with their working life, and never find time to read a book.’

Ziegler also discusses hitherto taboo subjects such as why most of the exiled writers chose to return to the GDR rather than West Germany after the war (if they returned at all). She contrasts the more openly welcoming attitude of East Germany with the suspicions and reservations shown by the Austrians and West Germans for their exiled writers. This only changed after the 1968 generation confronted their parents’ generation about their individual and collective guilt during the war, while the rise of feminism gave a new impetus to read voices which had previously been silenced.

All in all, a fantastic book which really shook me beyond all my expectations, and which provided me with many fresh insights. Plus a lot of new additions to my reading list, although it is doubtful that many of them are easily available, certainly not outside Germany.

 

Reading Bingo for 2014 (Mostly)

Thank you to the wonderful Cleo for making me aware of the reading bingo meme below. She has some wonderful selections on her own blog, do go and check them out, and I doubt I’ll be able to do quite as well, but here goes. I’ve stuck mainly to books read in 2014 and linked to my reviews of them (where available).

reading-bingo-small1) 500+ pages: Pierre Lemaitre’s wonderful recount of the end of the First World War: Au-revoir la-haut

2) Forgotten Classic: Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – I hadn’t read it since my schooldays and it was much better this time round

3) Book that became a movie:  Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Judge and His Hangman – adapted several times for TV and cinema, but its most famous and stylish adaptation is directed by Maximilian Schell

4) Book Published This Year: probably far too many, but one that comes to mind instantly is ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur‘ by Gregoire Delacourt

5) Book with a number in the title: 220 Volts by Joseph Incardona (review still to come) – an ‘electrifying’ account of a marriage in its death throes and a writer searching for inspiration

6) Book written by someone under 30: No idea, as the younger authors don’t usually have a Wikipedia entry with their date of birth, but I suspect that Kerry Hudson might fit into this category. I really enjoyed her novel ‘Thirst’.

7) A book with non-human characters: not really my type of reading, but Lauren Owen’s ‘The Quick’ featured vampires. Does that count? They are humanoid…

8) Funny: Light, witty and making me love my cat even more: Lena Divani’s ‘Seven Lives and One Great Love

9) Book by a female author: LOTS of them, hopefully, but a special shout-out for the delightful Wuthering Heights-like epic by Minae Mizumura ‘A True Novel’

10) Mystery: Well, most of my reading revolves around crime fiction, but I will mention David Jackson’s thrilling, heartbreaking read ‘Cry Baby

11) Novel with a one-word title: Surprisingly, there were a number of contenders for this, but I chose Shuichi Yoshida’s ‘Villain‘ – which is also a single word in Japanese ‘Akunin’.

12) Short stories: I realised this year that I haven’t read many short story collections recently, so I tried to make up for this and read about 4-5. My favourite was Alma Lazarevska’s  ‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art‘, stories set during the siege of Sarajevo.

13) A book set on a different continent: You know how I like to travel, so I have quite a choice here and went for the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean, as portrayed in ‘Devil-Devil’ by Graeme Kent.

14) Non-fiction: Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking‘ – the most honest and poignant depiction of grief I’ve come across in a long, long time

15) First Book by a favourite author: I’m cheating a little bit here, as I did not read it this year, but ‘The Voyage Out’ by Virginia Woolf surely counts? A much more conventional novel than her later work, it nevertheless contains many of her perennial themes (of trying to fit in, of the difficulties of communication, of allowing your emotions to be your guide and, finally, of becoming your own person with your own thoughts and stimulating intellect).

16) A book I heard about online: I discover many, far too many books and add them to my TBR list as a result of reading so many good blogs. Tony Malone has been the one to blame for many an impulsive purchase (usually well worth the effort!), and now he is also responsible for my obsession with Karl Ove Knausgård and his ‘A Man in Love‘.

17) Bestseller: I’m never quite sure if what I’m reading is a bestseller or not, as this is not one of the criteria I bear in mind when selecting a book. However, I’m pretty sure that ‘Norwegian by Night‘ by Derek B. Miller qualifies for that title – and it won the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award.

18) Book based on a true story: The partly autobiographical account (supplemented by a lot of imagination and memories from other participants) of the life of her mother by Delphine de Vigan 

19) Book at the bottom of the TBR pile: Well, it depends if it’s electronic book or physical book. I have a massive chunk of double-shelving to get through and the one that happened to be behind all the others was a book I picked up at a library sale ‘Un sentiment plus fort que la peur’ by Marc Levy. Levy is the most-read French author, has been translated into 49 languages and currently lives in the US. I suspect his thrillerish bestsellers might not quite be my style, but at 50 centimes for 400+ pages, I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

20) A book that a friend loves: Several friends (both online and real-life) have recommended Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs‘. I can completely understand their passion for it.

21) A book that scares me: I don’t read horror fiction very much and am not easily scared. However, horrible situations or characters, such as the mother in Koren Zailckas’ ‘Mother, Mother‘, do give me the creeps.

22) A book that is more than 10 years old: So many of my favourite books are… However, one I recently (re)read was Fumiko Enchi’s ‘The Waiting Years‘, written in 1957, and depicting an even older Japan.

23) The second book in a series: Frédérique Molay’s Paris-based detective Nico Sirsky reappears in the intriguing investigation concerning a dead man’s hidden message in ‘Crossing the Line

LongWayHome24) A book with a blue cover: I am susceptible both to blue covers and to this Canadian writer’s series about Armand Gamache: Louise Penny’s latest novel ‘The Long Way Home

 

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten (Flights of Love)

My second review for German Literature Month, expertly organised and hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. Another prize winning author, best known for his novel ‘The Reader’, this former law professor and judge is constantly preoccupied with the ‘burden of being German’.

In this short story collection, the more obvious immediate subject is love – in all its forms and nuances. It’s about taking flight and finding refuge in love (or in our idealised view of it) or about love that has flown away after many years of marriage. It’s about suppressed yearning and regrets for things not done, about the comfort of habits and rituals, and about the consequences of attempting to make the grand gesture. The protagonists are all men, of different ages, but virtually all slightly confused loners, no matter what outward trappings of success they might have. The author seems to build up towards a surprise ending in each story – yet the surprise is often not quite as dramatic as we might expect. Perhaps the surprise is that life goes on even after we try to change it.

I found ‘Girl and Lizard’ a bit creepy, about a man’s obsession with a family painting, which inhibits his ability to have normal relationships with other women. ‘Sugar Peas’ and ‘The Other’ are about affairs and keeping secrets, with twists which show us that nothing is simply black-and-white when it comes to marriages or extramarital relationships. ‘The Son’ is about a German professor sent to a country in the grips of a civil war as an international observer – and how he rediscovers his human empathy and his love for his son. ‘The Woman at the Gas Station’ is the most successful story in terms of capturing that universal human longing for the unattainable, the wondering ‘what if…’, the anxiety about missed opportunities in life, the attempt to rekindle a love grown cold.

Kann man sich in den anderen ein zweites Mal verlieben? Kennt man den anderen beim zweiten Mal nicht viel zu gut? Setzt Verlieben nicht voraus, daß man den anderen noch nicht kennt, daß er noch weiße Flecken hat, auf die man eigene Wünsche projizieiren kann?… Oder gibt es Liebe ohne Projektion?

Can you fall in love with the same person twice? Don’t you know the other person far too well the second time round? Doesn’t falling in love assume that you don’t quite know the other, that there are blank spots in which you can project your own dreams?… Or is there such a thing as love without projection? (my translation)

LiebesfluchtenYet my favourite two stories are more overtly political: they are about the clash of two cultures, two ideologies, as well as two people in love (or friendship). In ‘A Little Fling’ (ironic title – ‘Der Seitensprung’ in the original is slightly more neutral), it’s about the friendship between a West German man and an East German family, the betrayals on both sides – personal, political – and the question whether we can maintain a relationship even after we become aware of the betrayals. Can we still live with someone when we know them all too well, know even the worst that they are capable of?

Alle Ost-West-Geschichten waren Liebesgeschichten, mit den entsprechenden Erwartungen und Enttäuschungen. Sie lebten von der Neugier darauf, was am anderen fremd war, von dem, was er hatte und man selbst nicht… Wieviel gab es davon! Genug, um aus dem Winter, als die Mauer fiel, einen Frühling ost-west-deutscher Liebesneugier zu machen. Aber dann war, was fremd und anders und weit weg war, auf einmal nah, gewöhnlich und lästig…

All East-West stories were love stories, with the same expectations and disappointments. They thrived on the curiosity about what made the other different, what they had that we did not have… So many such stories! Enough, to make a spring of east-west German love-hunger out of wintry landscape of the Fall of the Wall. But then everything that was foreign, different and distant became, all of a sudden, close, common and annoying… (my translation)

‘The Circumcision’ shows a young German man trying to come to grips with his cultural heritage when he falls in love with an American Jew. In several interesting dialogues between the couple and their friends and relative, we discover how deep-rooted prejudices can be. The man, Andi, riles against his girlfriend’s declaration that she loves him ‘in spite of him being German’. He reproaches her family for not being at all genuinely curious about him: ‘You meet me above all with prejudice. You know everything about the Germans, ergo, you know everything there is to know about me.’ And ultimately, self-censorship creeps into their relationship – so many subjects they dare not discuss openly, so many trigger points they have to be careful to avoid, so many opinions they dare not voice.

Schlink is a very different writer from Alois Hotschnig, and not just in subject matter. His stories very much anchored in reality, there are only flights of fancy in his stories, not flights into surrealistic landscapes. He is also much less ‘slant’ in style: he tackles subjects head-on, he introduces quite explicit (sometimes unrealistically so) dialogue and does not shy away from underlining a point, to make sure the reader gets the message. He is a writer of ideas, one to provoke discussions at book clubs or to cause one to ruminate about one’s own life, rather than one to admire stylistically or to seek to emulate. I can’t say I was uniformly delighted by all of these stories, but I rather admire the fact that there is no neat ending to most of the stories. For such an emphatic writer, it must have been hard to abstain from tying up all the loose ends.

 

 

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig

GermanLitThis is my first review for November’s German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy for the fourth year running. I’m delighted to be taking part, after enjoying the reviews posted by participants in previous years.

What a brave choice this was for Peirene Press in their second year of existence to choose this collection of short stories by relatively unknown Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig (impeccably translated into English by Tess Lewis)!

I say that because these stories are seriously strange, unsettling, disturbing. It’s like going to sleep in a familiar world and waking up in a dream-like, trance-like state, where everything seems just slightly off-kilter to start with. Odd, certainly, but still harmless, relatively benign. And then, slowly but surely, you sink into a treacle-like nightmare. The more you try to shake yourself free, the deeper you fall – and there’s no escape.

The author has been compared to Kafka and Thomas Bernhard, but there are few similarities (except for the fact that they are all Austrian and that there are certain passages in Kafka’s diaries, where he describes his dreams, which may sound familiar). I am reminded more of Freudian analysis, of the absurdity of Eugene Ionesco and the surrealist riffs of the short stories of Haruki Murakami. The narrator in virtually all of these stories is an unspecified male who seems to be struggling to understand the world and his own place in it, who seems to have some difficulty relating to others.

HotschnigThe shorter stories are perhaps more forgettable: they feel like warm-up exercises to the longer ones. Even so, they bring an interesting twist of perspective from this author who clearly sees things differently from the vast majority of us. The close observation of the struggle for survival amongst creepy-crawlies in ‘Encounter’, for instance, the sense of foreboding in ‘Morning, Noon and Night’ and stepping into the mind of a paranoid stalker (or is he?) in ‘Two Ways of Leaving’. The longer stories allow for gradual build-up of tension, while still leaving so much unsaid or merely hinted at.

In ‘Maybe This Time, Maybe Now’, a family’s gatherings are suffused with the joyful expectation and then anguish of their wait for the mysterious Uncle Walter, who never shows up, who perhaps doesn’t even exist. So you begin to wonder at the possible metaphors there: a family searching for perfection, a nation waiting for a saviour, the origin of religious belief? In ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’ the narrator is accosted by an old woman on the street and invited into her house to admire her doll collection. One of the dolls resembles him but, instead of running away, he finds himself oddly attracted to the creepy experience the woman has to offer (older, more threadbare versions of himself).

Each time I left her house, a part of me remained behind, and I could feel its absence when I was not with her I didn’t know her at all in fact. She was a stranger to me in so many ways. Nothing bound me to her other than her knowledge about me and her ability to reveal me to myself to an extent no one else ever could.

In the first story, a man becomes obsessed with spying on his neighbours but ultimately only succeeds in delving deeper into himself.  In ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’, a man seems to be suffering from amnesia and finds – with surprise – a name on his front door that others have been calling him, but of which he himself has no recollection.  He is being taken for a person he believes he is not. This, I think, hints at the unifying aspect of all these stories: a search for identity. A feeling that, beneath all of the masks that the modern world forces upon us, there is something deep and enduring, if only we could find it. But is that indeed the case, or is the narrator forever doomed to be disappointed and betrayed – by himself and others?

Author photo in Wikipedia - and doesn't he look nice and smiley?

Author photo in Wikipedia – and doesn’t he look nice and smiley?

This is a book which left me nervy and anxious, but also inspired (for my own writing). Still, it was with some relief that I turned to the more conventional love stories of Bernhard Schlink for my next read.

 

October Reads – a Quieter Month

P1020878October has been a quiet month in terms of reading – both in terms of quantity and quality.  Two weeks of holiday (including a trip to Paris and a week of house-guests) have left their mark. Incidentally, I’ve noticed that a day without reading feels really empty and unsatisfactory, no matter how busy I was with other things.

It has also been a month with fewer reviews – or perhaps I am just settling into my new reading principles. I have completed my reading challenge of 150 books this year and am now reading more for pleasure and allowing myself the freedom of NOT reviewing books unless I feel strongly about them.

3 books in French:

Grégoire Delacourt: On ne voyait que le bonheur

Joseph Incardona: 220 Volts – a post on this author and some other French male authors will follow shortly

Daniel Pennac: La Feé Carabine

I exceeded my self-imposed target of one book in French per month, and I enjoyed all three of them. In fact, they were probably my joint best reads of the month

1 translation from Finnish:

Kati Hiekkapelto: The Hummingbird

All of the remaining books were good reads, enjoyable to pass a few hours, but nothing really stood out for me.

3 crime novels set in the UK:

Rachel Abbott: Sleep Tight

James Runcie: Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night – upon which the Grantchester series on British TV is based

Kate Rhodes: Crossbones Yard – discussed at our Crime Book Club

1 book set in Peru: 

Natalia Sylvester: Chasing the Sun

 

 

 

 

Art, Creativity, Poetry (and Prose)

Two quick reviews today of poetry and poetic prose, by two very different but equally gifted young writers. One born in England but living in Ireland. The other is Swiss, but writes (in this book) about China.

seaofink_0_220_330Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink (transl. by Jamie Bulloch)

The author is clearly attracted by exotic (i.e. Eastern) art – he has also written about the Indian woman painter Amrita Sher-Gil. This slim book is also about a real historical figure, the Chinese painter Bada Shanren, descendant of the Ming dynasty. Little is known about his life, however, although his work has been very influential, hugely admired and extensively analysed. So Weihe is free to weave the meagre details of his life into a slow-burning meditation into the meaning of art, where creativity fits into politics and everyday life, and how to capture the essence of nature and reality. The biographical details are perhaps the least interesting elements of the story, although they provide a certain structure upon which the author hangs his narrative: finding refuge in a temple, feigning madness (or perhaps being really mad for a period) to avoid confrontation with the new political rulers, reluctantly achieving fame. His artistic progress is marked through little vignettes describing his thoughts, emotions and brushstrokes as he creates ten of his most famous paintings. It’s like looking over the artist’s shoulder, watching his attempts to capture the spirit of nature, render it on paper and make it look effortless.

A beautiful, hypnotic book, full of the apparent contradictions of Taoist philosophy (exhaustively researched by the author). A book to reread for inspiration, and not just for painters, full of very quotable pages:

When you paint, you do not speak. But when you have painted, your brush should have said everything.

When you dip your paintbrush into the ink, you are dipping it into your soul. And when you guide your paintbrush, it is your spirit guiding it.

When you paint, do not think about painting, but let your wrist dance.

Originality? I am as I am, I paint as I paint. I have no method… I am just me.

You cannot hang onto the beards of the ancients. You must try to be your own life and not the death of another.

How can it be that, from a dismal sky, this bitter world can suddenly show us that we love it, in spite of everything, and that in spite of everything it will be hard to take our leave of it?

He had set himself one final goal. He wanted to paint flowing water.

silentmusicAdam Wyeth: Silent Music

A fine blend between English realism and Irish romanticism, Wyeth’s poetry starts with a small observation of daily life, which is then suddenly subverted and lets you take a deeper dive into something far more profound. Gathering and cooking globe artichokes becomes a moment of intimacy and exploration, a cinema trip with his mother becomes a heartbreaking revelation of a boy’s helplessness when face with the end of his parents’ marriage, a lost umbrella becomes the metaphor for bad memories of which we try to rid ourselves. Divorce, love, lost friendships, a father’s tumour, trips abroad, childhood pranks, child labour, pigs: there is no subject too big or too small for poetry, but there is no bathos here. Just clear-eyed and very precise recollection and wording.

There is plenty of humour and experimentation amidst more serious poems: this is the debut collection of a young, exuberant writer after all.  ‘Bubbly’ is a poem designed to be read from bottom to top, rising like the bubbles in a glass of champagne – yet it works equally well when read from top to bottom.  The poet makes of fun of fake intellectual pretensions (in the title poem ‘Silent Music’), wannabe poets who lament their lives provide them with nothing interesting to write about, naughty schoolchildren with their secret jargon, even the Danish language ‘that is why there are no famous Danish poets’.

poetryinternationalweb.net

poetryinternationalweb.net

Here’s a short poem in its entirety – the title is longer than the poem, almost, yet so much irony and ambiguity is condensed into those three lines. It’s based on the miracle observed in the summer of 1985 at Ballinspittle Grotto, when the statue of the Virgin Mary moved spontaneously, receiving much national and international publicity.

Waiting for the Miracle at Ballinspittle Grotto

Nothing moves but cars.

First one passes, then I see

a second coming.

 

By way of contrast, however, these romantic, inspirational lines at sunrise:

Some say to witness the break of day

is to witness the hand of God

pull back his black mantle

to touch fingers

with our ancestors

and know something of Adam

as the land was revealed fresh,

like seeing a lover undress for the first time.

 

My 150th book: Grégoire Delacourt

lalistedemesenviesToday I reached my reading target for the year: 150 books. So everything else from here on is a bonus. But what a book to finish my challenge on!

It’s the story of a family haunted by coldness, lack of communication, lack of love and overflow of sadness entitled (ironically) ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur’ (All you could see was the happiness) by Grégoire Delacourt, which has just been published this rentrée littéraire (the autumn publishing frenzy in France, just ahead of all the literary prizes). Delacourt is a PR specialist/copywriter who started writing at the age of 50. He achieved considerable success in France with his second novel ‘La Liste de mes envies’ (The List of My Desires) – which has since been adapted for the theatre and film – about a lottery-winner, and some notoriety with his third novel ‘La Premiere chose qu’on regard’, featuring a Scarlett Johansson double, which the American actress did not appreciate and for which she took the French publisher to court.

This fourth book is fiction, but you might be forgiven at first for thinking that it’s a misery memoir. It’s the story of a seemingly boring insurance expert nearing middle age, Antoine, who muses about his unhappy childhood and the impact it has had on his own life and parenting skills. But misery memoirs are miserable only when they are badly written; when deftly handled and improved by the lack of constraints of fiction, they transcend the specific details and allow the reader to identify with the universal emotions and truths expressed therein.

DelacourtIt starts off deceptively low-key. Antoine sounds like a pessimistic sod, but perhaps for good reason. His job is to investigate insurance claims and car accidents, making sure that the payout is minimal for the insurance company he works for. In the process, he has to ignore people’s heartbreak and suffering. He berates himself for being a coward, for not having any integrity, for not standing up for the oppressed little man. Bit by bit, through slivers of pictures and scenes from the more distant and more recent past, we discover his unhappy childhood. His parents were terribly mismatched: a cold, clinical father who never shared his heart or secrets or games with his children. A Madame Bovary type of mother, clinging to her illusions, cigarettes and Sagan novels. Twin sisters five years younger than him, much more his parents’ darling than he ever was – until the day when one of them dies in her sleep. The other twin then develops a strange speech impediment, losing half of her words, while the mother abandons the family, never getting in touch again. Antoine and his little sister cling to each other in a touching story of sibling love and protection.

So far so plausibly grim, you might think. In the first part of the book the first person narrator (Antoine) is addressing his son Leon, trying to explain how he ended up being the kind of father he was, how he met his future wife and Leon’s mother, how they tried to play at happy families for a while. There is a lot in the book about the gap between appearances and reality, between façade and the unhappiness or darkness lurking underneath. But then the book descends into the shocking, the unthinkable, and it becomes deeply disturbing. Especially to a parent. Most especially to a parent who feels not entirely confident that they are always providing their children with all the love, opportunities, attention and balance that they deserve. (So that would be all of us, then.) There are a lot of loving details in the memories Antoine has of his mother and yet:

Un jour, je lui ai demandé si elle m’aimait et elle a repondu à quoi ça sert. Aucun enfant ne devrait entendre ça. Ca m’a tué. Je veux dire, c’est ce qui a commencé à me tuer.

On day I asked her if she loved me and she replied: what’s the use. No child should have to hear that. It killed me. Or rather, that’s what started to kill me. (my translation)

Gregoire-Delacourt_1705The second part of the book is more about Antoine’s gradual redemption abroad, in an isolated and very poor part of the world, while the third part is written by his daughter Josephine. It’s a very powerful story about the fear of loving and the need to feel loved, but also about forgiveness, about understanding the reasons for extreme behaviours which we usually condemn. It was an emotionally wrenching read, but also strangely fascinating. I found myself unable to concentrate on much else until I had finished the book.

One final word on the author’s predilection for list-making. At many points in the book, you find whole pages of phrases or sentences repeating certain rhythms, words or structures. Of the type (my translation and slight cutting):

In the photos,  you can’t see how overcooked the fish was. You can’t see the false compliments: yes, it was perfect. You can see our new car. You can see me, stupidly proud, next to the car. You can see the Barbie tricycle. You can see Josephine and Nathalie in the bathtub. You can see Anna and her husband Thomas in our tiny garden, next to a faded hyacinth. You can’t see my mother. You can’t see the lies. You can’t see the baby that Nathalie hadn’t wanted to keep the year before because she wasn’t sure she loved me anymore. You can’t see my tears at the time. My nights spent on the couch. My insomnia. The beast that was awakening. All you could see was the happiness.

And there are many, many more like that throughout the book. Is Delacourt just being stylistically lazy, or does the gradual piling up of details and the repetitions add to the layering on of emotions? It’s certainly an effective way of presenting the disparate, almost pointillistic thoughts that both Antoine and his daughter have – reminding me of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique.

In summary, a haunting, compelling, gut-squeezing read, an opportunity to end my reading challenge with a bang, not a whimper!

completed

 

 

 

 

 

Best of the September Reading Crop

20140817_140126Well, it’s harvest time, with some of my favourite fruit now in season: grapes, apples, plums, peaches… I am full and replete with the joys of eating, but what about my reading this month?

It’s been a month of heavy English-language domination for some reason. Out of the 10 books I read (I’m not counting the re-reads for the moment), 6 have been written by English-speaking authors, of which 2 Americans, 2 Scottish and 2 English (I am nothing if not fair and neutral about the referendum on Scottish independence). Israel, Egypt, Switzerland and Swiss/China have been my other sources of books.  Unusually, only half (five) of the books I read this month were crime fiction.

1) Anne Fine: Taking the Devil’s Advice - who’d have thought that a writer I knew predominantly for her children’s books can write such dark and humorous fiction for adults too?

Kerry Hudson, photo from The Guardian.

Kerry Hudson, photo from The Guardian.

2) Kerry Hudson: Thirst - love moves in mysterious ways: a very clear-eyed picture of modern London, immigrants and hope in the midst of squalour – highly recommended

3) Derek B. Miller: Norwegian by Night - there is much to like in this book about an octogenarian and a little boy on the run from Kosovan criminals in a country where they don’t speak the language… but I didn’t quite love it as much as other readers

bratfarrar4) Josephine Tey: Brat Farrar – I reread all of Tey’s crime novels for this feature for Classics in September for Crime Fiction Lover (CFL). The Franchise Affair, The Daughter of Time and Miss Pym Disposes are the best known of her novels, but I had not previously read Brat Farrar, the story of a planned scam to defraud a family of an inheritance. Although (in my opinion) it has aged slightly less well than her other novels, it is still a delightful read, excellent characterisation – and, as always with Tey, with much deeper moral dilemmas than is obvious at first sight.

5) D. A. Mishani: A Possibility of Violence - I’ll also be writing a review and conducting an interview with the author for CFL

6) Joan Smith: What Men Say – a reminder that reading tastes change in 20 years: I previously enjoyed Loretta Lawson and her investigations coloured by feminism. I found this book too much ranting and not enough plotting, mystery or suspense.

7) Naguib Mahfouz: The Beginning and the End – essential for understanding a certain period of Egyptian history, this is also a very dramatic family saga

8) M.L. Longworth: Murder on the Ile Sordou – an island off the coast of France, near Marseilles, a newly opened hotel with a disparate group of guests and staff of varying levels of experience (and with the obligatory secrets). A murder occurs and the island is not quite sealed off, but certainly under investigation to find the murderer – a familiar set-up for crime fiction fans. I can never resist a French location and I’ll review this very soon on CFL.

9) Joseph Incardona: Banana Spleen – I’ll post a more detailed review of this perhaps as part of a theme ‘Men Without Their Women’. A downward spiral for the 30+ something male protagonist, showing that despair and aimlessness is possible even in such well-regulated cities as Geneva.

seaofink_0_220_33010) Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink – This is also written by a Swiss author (of German language, while Incardona is Franco-Italian Swiss) and also deserves a more detailed review. Based on the few details known about the life of one of China’s most prominent calligraphers and artists, this is a prose-poem about creativity, inspiration and discipline, mastering the Way of Tao, finding both reality and self in great art.

So what was my top read of the month? Overall, it was Kerry Hudson‘s poignant novel ‘Thirst’ – it really struck a chord with me. My crime fiction pick of the month would be Mishani’s A Possibility of Violence – my first experience of Israeli crime fiction and thus feeling rather fresh and unusual.

 

Changing My Reading Habits (Part 2)

Walk2This continues yesterday’s ruminations about reading: duty versus pleasure, and where blogging/reviewing fits into all of this. How can I hack/cut my own path through the jungle of publishing PR, excited recommendations and friendly requests? How can I bring quality and fun back into reading, rather than making it a race about quantity and deadlines?

I’ve got a list of New School Year Resolutions, but I’ll start with the most obvious remark. I am NOT a professional reviewer. I do not get paid to read, edit, market, hold a writer’s hand or write reviews – not even for the Crime Fiction Lover website. It’s all a labour of love. I may be a fast reader, but I am a slow reviewer. I want my review to be well-balanced, fair, taking into account that different people might find different aspects of the book appealing. I like to think about larger patterns or themes emerging from my reading. I like to compare writers or different cultures. But all of this takes time – at least a couple of hours per review (pure writing time, without counting the reading and researching).

It’s time I cannot afford to spend anymore on blogging. Much as I love reviewing books, participating in challenges, interacting with you all, reading your thoughts and blogs, responding to comments and commenting on your posts, I just cannot sustain this pace whilst also focusing on my family and my day-job. My writing, above all, has suffered in the process. Which is ironic, because the reason I started blogging in the first place was so I could write something everyday, improve my writing skills, track my progress. Call me a wimp, a wuss, a ‘beer glass of reduced volumic capacity’ (good old Romanian saying), but I have days when I am unable to write anything else after I’ve finished a book review. And, since my mission in life is to write poetry and crime fiction (rather than becoming the most revered or feared book reviewer or the blogger with the most followers and freshly pressed articles), it is clear that things need to change.

Walk1Resolutions:

1) Thou shalt not buy, beg or borrow any more books

… until I’ve finished everything I already own. Or give away the books that do not appeal to me. That means: tie up (or otherwise disable) my trigger-happy finger which keeps clicking the ‘buy’ button on online bookshops (and it’s not just Amazon that makes it very easy to order with one click), or the ‘request/send’ button on sites such as Netgalley.

I am very grateful to publishers who send me free books – even more grateful to those who ask me first which ones appeal to me rather than just randomly selecting some of their latest releases. But I also have to be able to say ‘No’, to be clearer about my reading preferences, and not feel obliged to review everything I’ve been sent (when it’s not been requested by me). I also need to give away those ‘scattergun’ books much, much sooner, and stop hoarding them on the ‘off-chance’ that someday I may change my mind. (It can happen, but far too infrequently and I don’t have the space.)

Walk32) Thou can live without all the books you have ever liked or been interested in

I’ve had to move abroad quite a few times and many of my favourite books got left behind in the process. I still have an attic full of books in the UK – and yes, sometimes I would like to re-read a passage which I am sure I have somewhere up there, but on the whole I can live without them or look them up elsewhere. I have to be more selective about keeping only non-negotiable favourites whom I consult all the time, or rare/unusual/hard to find editions. Even if they were expensive.

And I can also learn to wait before reading the ‘latest buzzes’ – which means I am more likely to find them at the library and need not feel guilty about abandoning them half-way through if they do not meet my expectations.

3) Thou shalt have fun with your reading

… and bring serendipity back into the game. Pick up a random title, author, genre on the bookshelf, something just a little beyond your usual line of sight. I want to read lesser known authors, re-read some of my old favourites from school and university, discover little quiet gems instead of the big brash brass-bands of new releases. Not so much for the sake of standing out from the crowd, but because you get to hear all of that hype anyway, in all kinds of media. Do you really need my take on ‘Gone Girl’ when you can read hundreds of reviews elsewhere? There are so many other good books out there deserving a mention, perhaps ones which have been published a while ago but got very little exposure, or authors who have fallen out of favour.

Walk44) Thou shalt be brave and honest

I won’t like all books that I’ve been sent, that I’ve borrowed or bought. A perfectly decent cover, blurb and opening paragraph may suddenly turn into the nightmare read from hell halfway through the book. I know some reviewers who make it a policy to not review a book unless they loved it and can recommend it to others. I can understand this all too well: so much time and effort (blood, sweat, caffeine and tears) has gone into writing and publishing a book that anyone with a writer’s heart will feel uncomfortable criticising it. But if we were all to follow this rule, there would be no warning signs at all on books and we’d soon get very disappointed as a reader, feeling we’d been conned into buying books we simply cannot care about.

This is especially hard when you are reviewing books by people you consider friends (whether you’ve met them in person or only online). I have a huge sense of loyalty to anyone who’s ever been nice to me. When it’s a debut that I did not get on with, I’ve been known to email the author and say: ‘Would you rather I didn’t review it at all, because I can only give it 1-2 stars?’ Because I do believe that debut authors deserve some encouragement, a second chance. I’ve also been known to revert to what the French call the ‘wooden language’ of diplomacy. It’s useful to know perhaps that ‘fast-paced page-turner’ means ‘not much substance’, while ‘an assortment of quirky characters’ usually means ‘far too long cast list of flat stereotypes’.

From now on, I will be honest. Still fair and balanced, still bearing in mind that we are all different and like a huge variety of things, but no more beating around the bush if a book did not appeal to me. Although I may let any author friend know in private rather than posting a scathing review without informing them. And there will be no sarcasm for the sake of showing off my superior critical abilities – when I haven’t even finished writing my first novel!

Walk55) Thou shalt be guided by mood, the colour of the sky and the call of the wild

… but it will not be all aimless wandering. When you reach a certain age, it’s all too easy to turn into a curmudgeon and say ‘I know what I want and like, so that’s what I’ll read’. I want to continue to broaden my reading tastes, in a gentle rather than a forced way. I want to explore new countries, new authors.

So here are some concrete changes you will notice on my blog:

  • I won’t review everything I read, just the books which stand out for me, or which fit into a theme, and probably not more frequently than 1-2 review per week. And that includes the 1-2 books a month which I will be reviewing for other sites.
  • I won’t boast anymore about my latest bookhauls. Although I love hearing what other people are getting and reading, in far too many cases it turns out to be a sort of free book promotion for publishers and authors. I’d rather tweet about that, rather than dedicate a blog post to it.
  • I won’t be jumping on the bandwagon anymore with the latest releases. You may find I review things a couple of years later, after the hoopla has died down. Or talk about authors you’ve only vaguely heard of. Or introduce you to authors I’d like to see translated into English. But rules are made to be broken, so I can’t promise that I won’t fall for a bit of hype from time to time!
  • Post less frequently but more substantially (although I may still succumb to the temptation of pictures of libraries, bookshelves, writers’ studies and interior design). Write more poetry, prose and other posts about writing in general. And sorry, but I cannot stick to a set weekly routine of posts… It will be haphazard as ever, following the call of the wild…

 

Thank you all for your kind tweets and comments on Part 1 of this post yesterday, and for your patience for my long, self-indulgent rant today. It seems that this conundrum resonates with many of you, so please share your own strategies and coping mechanisms.

 

 

Changing My Reading Habits (Part 1)

BookPile2This post follows a few days of intense thinking after reading this very enlightening post by Simon Savidge, a book reviewer I hugely respect. I also realised that this coming weekend I will probably reach my reading target of 150 books for the year – with three months still to go! No, that did not fill me with pride, but with horror, as I expected it to be a stretch goal. It’s all very well to read fast – but does that mean I am perhaps reading too fast, or opting for ‘easy’ reads, not challenging myself, not really spending time with the kind of books I want to be reading? So here are some of my thoughts about how I got into the predicament I am now with my reading, reviewing and writing.

I was never the world’s most disciplined and systematic reader. I would meander through bookshops, libraries, friends’ bookshelves, life in general, picking up whatever I fancied, experimenting, rebelling against the imposed and eager to partake of the forbidden. Many books were censored by the government of the time, so unsurprisingly that made them all the more desirable to the citizens of my country, so we made do with photocopied versions or ancient paperbacks that had been smuggled in and fallen apart in the process. My parents had a good selection of books across all genres and in several languages, all accessible to me from an early age (there was no attempt to guide or force my reading, other than a vague ‘What’s that you’re reading now? Oh, I seem to remember that’s excellent…’). I was always allowed to buy more books, no matter how hard up we were financially (and books were cheap back then), but I always borrowed far more than I bought. From my parents I learnt, above all, a huge respect for books, especially those of good quality, which did not peddle the ‘party line’ in order to get published.

P1020734So my reading habits back in my childhood and teens could be described as ‘omnivorous’ and relying very heavily on ‘happenstance’. I would fall in love with a new author and become mildly obsessed with him/her, reading everything by and about them that I could lay my hands on. Same with historical figures, certain topics or schools of thought. I spent a winter with the Dadaists, a summer with Sylvia Plath (probably just as well, as Sylvia Plath in winter may have driven me to the depths of despair). The main thing is: I read for pleasure, without any care about impressing others or worrying about whether I was learning anything from other writers.

Then I studied Japanese and English at university, so my reading became much more ‘specialist’. Not only did I have a set syllabus (oh, Chomsky’s transformational grammar and Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost! Bane of my life!), but I also discovered competitive reading. All of my classmates were budding writers, literary critics, great readers and often book snobs. So I had to keep up with the herd. I had to be comfortable discussing Saussure, Lacan, Foucault and Barthes, as no essay could be written without at least a passing reference to them and other structuralists. I had to hide away my Agatha Christie and other ‘lighter’ fiction in favour of the classics and ‘trendy’ books of the time. (In our isolated socialist society, we were probably a bit behind the times, but I seem to remember collective obsessions with John Fowles, Bernard Malamud and Mircea Cărtărescu).

Then came the Fall of the Wall and suddenly the whole world was our oyster. So much richness, so much choice! I went a little mad and joined all the foreign libraries and borrowed ten books at a time, went abroad and returned with suitcases full of books (the customs officer could not believe that I had returned from Japan with books instead of electronic gadgets). I recently found a diary of those years and this is a typical example of what I might read in a week:

Beryl Bainbridge: Watson’s Apology; Kafka’s Letters to Milena; Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano; Patrick White: The Burnt Ones; Rosamond Lehmann: Dusty Answer; Natsume Soseki: I Am a Cat; R. Wiggershaus: Die Frankfurter Schule (nope, I don’t remember much about that last one).

And I kept up this eclectic approach when I went abroad, from country to country, reading in the original language where I could,  becoming more and more enamoured with crime fiction and noir, relying heavily on inter-library loans when I found a new writer I could be passionate about. Joy, fun and lack of snobbishness were once again on the agenda. But reading was once more a solitary activity – few of my friends enjoyed the same books I did, and I tried a couple of book clubs without much success. I was too wary of rejoining a herd, listening to received opinions, reading the same books that everyone else was reading. How did Murakami put it so nicely in his book ‘Norwegian Wood’?

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

I decided I was an eccentric, a rebel, a crime fiction addict with a hard literary core.

Fast forward to 2012 when I started writing seriously once more. Blogging was initially a way to hold myself accountable for writing regularly, rediscovering poetry, experimenting and chronicling my favourite reading. Through this blog and Twitter I connected with some wonderful writers, publishers, reviewers and – after answering a quiz about crime fiction – I became part of the Crime Fiction Lover team. This led to other requests for reviews and I began reading more and more to keep up with demand. It was wonderful to share my bookish delights with others once more… and even more wonderful to receive review copies from publishers for free.

P1020733Yes, I admit I was greedy. Not very discriminating. I just couldn’t say No to a book – even if it wasn’t in my preferred genre, even if I wasn’t the perfect reviewer for that book (not being the target audience). Call it years of deprivation, of having to make do with nearly illegible pirate copies, or having to survive on books that were considered ‘compatible with socialist mores’… Call it the hunger for English language books when you are living in a rural corner of France, where there are next to no bookshops, although thankfully a fair few libraries (the English language section, however, is quite limited)… Call it making friends with fellow authors and wanting to support them by buying and reading their books… Call it reading too many book blogs that make a compelling case for just one more book…  Or just call it plain old avarice.

Anyway, so I have ended up with far, far too many books. Both on my groaning bookshelves and on my Tablet (which my husband bought me in the mistaken belief that it would eliminate our book flow problem). But the worst thing is… that I now have to read with a purpose – usually for reviewing, or for engaging in a dialogue with other bookish people around the world. And, while there is nothing nicer than sharing our love for books, or shouting from the rooftops when we’ve found a book that we believe everyone else MUST read AT ONCE, it has also put pressure on me to read certain books at specific times, just before or after their release dates. I’ve also had to plough through books which have not been quite to my taste, or perhaps I was not in the mood for them just then – but there was no time to set them aside and try again later.

It's all about the meeting of minds.

It’s all about the meeting of minds.

Don’t get me wrong. I am very grateful indeed to all the publishers and PR folk who keep me in the loop with their latest releases. Of course I get a buzz from discovering a new author to love – perhaps ahead of the rest of world. But it has got slightly out of hand. Instead of finding sustenance and sheer joy in books, I sometimes read them with the dagger of duty in my heart. I feel like I am back at university, with a required reading list whether I am in the mood for it or not and seeking to impress my peers. So how can I recover my sense of wonder and delight, how can I continue to explore while still allowing time to think and reread? Am I still a rebel, an eccentric, or am I just a faceless member of the herd?

But this post is already long and rambling enough as it is, so I won’t try your patience any further today. I will continue tomorrow with my thoughts on how to ‘turn over a new page’. [Oh, yes, I've got bookish puns aplenty!] Thanks again to Simon for helping me crystallise my own thinking on this.

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