I should in theory wait until tomorrow or the 1st of December to write my monthly summary, but I have other plans for this week, so will wrap up a little earlier. It has felt like a very long month, with the exception of my 4-5 days in Yorkshire, which simply flew by. With the exception of those few days of real holiday, my first in two years, I have been mostly ill (in fact, I had a headache for two of my days in Yorkshire too). I don’t know if my tussle with Covid in October left my body drained and my immune system struggling, but I seem to have caught every single one of the bugs from school and university, with at most a day or two of feeling fine in-between.
So, for anyone wondering where I got all my energy from – wonder no more, for my batteries have well and truly gone this month! I have just about managed to keep the day job going, spent most of my weekends in bed, and have resigned myself that I will be missing out on various projects I wanted to be involved in that have a 30th November deadline.
The only event I was able to attend (on one of the few days when I felt fine) was the Corylus event at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London on the 16th of November, where I got to speak together with the two Bogdans that I’ve been translating: Bogdan Teodorescu and Bogdan Hrib in a debate about BalkanNoir: Is Romania the Wild Wild East of Crime Fiction. The discussion was recorded and I hope we can share the link with you very soon.
Enforced bed rest and a wet mush of a brain might not be conducive to writing or translating, but it worked fine for reading, although admittedly some books were chosed for ease of reading – rather like porridge with honey to soothe a sore throat. I read no less than 18 books, helped by the fact that many of them were novellas. I have even reviewed quite a few of them.
My German Literature Month reads were all novellas, with one exception, so I managed to participate in #NovNov as well.
Alan Johnson: The Late Train to Gipsy Hill – imagine a fun spy novel, more goofy than seriously chilling, despite the rather serious subject matter
Christine Mangan: Palace of the Drowned – which did not live up to the blurb and premise – Venice in winter, an author suffering from writers’ block and waning popularity, a creepy old palazzo, an over-eager young fan. Let’s just say that it was verbose rather than truly atmospheric, neither Death in Venice nor The Talented Mr Ripley.
Margaret Kennedy: The Feast – review to come, hopefully
Surprisingly, only a third of the books I read this month were foreign language books – all of them German. Ten of the eighteen were by women writers and five were in the crime genre (a very low percentage by my standards).
Reading plans for December will be all about snow and frozen climes: Russians and Scandinavians will have pride of place, so that I can snuggle indoors under many blankets while the blizzard rages outside.
Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations, transl. Michael Hofmann
I had read about Irmgard Keun in the really quite wonderful book about women under the national socialist regime in Germany by Edda Ziegler, but I hadn’t actually read anything by her. However, a lot of my bookblogging friends seemed to really enjoy her work. This one caught my eye in the bookshop and, as a child of all nations myself (raising even more international children), I couldn’t resist it, even though I prefer reading German books in the original if I possibly can.
After reading The Passenger so recently, it struck me how similar the subject matter is, but seen from a child’s perspective. Written in 1938, before the full horrors of the war would grip all of Europe, it is prescient and claustrophobic, just like The Passenger, but because it is told by a child narrator, it does not quite have the despair and airless sensation of Anna Segher’s Transit – nor its power, I thought.
Child narrators are notoriously difficult to pull off. Ten-year-old Kully is a curious mix of naivety and street smarts. Shunted from country to country, learning to beg and trick and bribe while living in a constant fear of being kicked out of hotels and friends’ houses, she has had to grow up far beyond her years. School is too dull for her, because she already knows far more of real life, geography and languages than what she is taught there., ‘all the things she needed to know in her life, there was not one she had learned at school.’ But at other times she comes out with startling statements about the relationship between men and women in particular which sound far too childish – or perhaps show that she has not spent enough time with both parents to have this kind of conversations with them:
It seems a Maharaha has several wives, which I think is a good thing. That way when he has to leave, I won’t be alone but will be able to turn to the other wives for comfort. I don’t know whether it’s allowed to marry several Maharajas. Obviously that would be the best. Then, if a couple of them had to travel to Poland, I’d still have a few more to hand. My mother is a great example of how diffiult it is for a woman who has to get by on just one man.
Some of the smart-aleck observations are more successful than others, and often Kully has too advanced overtly political thoughts (although they are often quoted as her father’s thoughts):
Everything that’s wrong with the world begins with fear… All that mess in Germany could only result because the people there have lived in fear for ever…. the people are so crippled and warped by fear that they elect a government that they can serve in fear. Not content with that, when they see other people who are not set on living in fear, they get angry, and try in their turn to make them afraid.
The bills mount up, the father keeps travelling around trying to sell his writing, while Kully and her mother have to deal with the fallout. Along the way, she encounters (even if she doesn’t always understand it) mental breakdown, infidelity, rejection, suicide, death and alcohol. She often has to be more of a grown-up, more sensible than her parents. She is, in essence, robbed of a proper, carefree childhood, even when she plays with other children, she is cynically copying their gestures and manipulating things so she can fit in.
There is a brief moment of joy in the milder climes of Italy with her mother and grandmother, as well as an interlude of hope when she and her father make it out on the ship to America. But Italy has its own dictator, and the promised land across the ocean does not offer as much of a welcome as they were hoping for, plus their mother got left behind in Europe by accident. So Kully returns to Europe, just as Keun herself almost inexplicably did in 1938, condemning herself to inner exile, anonymity, living under a false name and losing her voice.
I can’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t quite enjoy the book as much as I expected to: maybe the rumours that the difficult, somewhat feckless father is modelled on Joseph Roth, maybe the inconsistent child narrator voice, maybe the rather unbelievable ‘temporarily happy’ ending (of course we know that any happiness or togetherness was bound to be short-lived in Amsterdam at the time). I think her earlier, more optimistic novels such as Gilgi or The Artificial Silk Girl, with indomitable, independent, fearless young women trying to make their way in the world, might have been a better place to start. In this book, I could detect the bitterness of defeat.
Nevertheless, I am glad I managed to sneak this one into my German Literature Month reviews and Novellas in November. It has been a fantastic month of reading – novellas really are often more powerful than novels, perhaps because they have to convey so much in so little space!
I am not always sure that recording a video is quicker than writing a review, but this was more like improvisation based on bullet points. So, if you can bear me looking just about everywhere except for the camera, this is a good way to talk about four books which were very enjoyable, but about which I don’t have enough to say for a really comprehensive review. Or, to be honest, am also too busy to sit down and think about more comprehensively and coherently.
The books are (in order):
Catherine Fox: Angels and Men, set in Durham in the 1990s
Abir Mukherjee: A Necessary Evil, set in India in 1920
E.C.R. Lorac: These Names Make Clues, set in 1936 London
Bella Ellis: The Vanished Bride, set in Haworth in 1845.
I’m not so keen on open plan offices, but I’ve always loved the idea of having an office of my own, with a door I can close, and with lots of beautiful storage space so that I can be freakishly neat (I used to be, once upon a time, not so much now!)
I didn’t think I acquired lots of books this month, but surprise, surprise, it’s still quite a chunky pile!
Bella Ellis: The Vanished Bride and The Diabolical Bones. Bella Ellis is the pen name for Rowan Coleman – a series of murdery mysteries featuring the Bronte sisters – I had never heard of this series before, but it was a must after visiting the Parsonage. – discovered in the charming Wave of Nostalgia shop on Haworth Main Street, with its theme of ‘strong women’. The third volume has just come out: Rowan Coleman was at the shop recently to sign the book, but I thought I should start at the beginning. I’ve already devoured the first one and could of course imagine every room in the house and the surrounding landscape.
E.C.R. Lorac: These Names Make Clues – a present from the lovely Janet Emson, when we met at Sculpture Park, already done and dusted, short review to follow.
Margaret Kennedy: The FeastThis one was actually inspired by a review from Jacqui, but it fits in well with an idea I had for a crime novel featuring disparate guests arriving for various reasons at a Buddhist retreat centre in Yorkshire (which might bear some coincidental similarities to the Christian retreat centre I stayed at).
Inspired by other readers
Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday American author Lily King said in a recent article on LitHub that ‘one of the greatest loves of my life has been the short novel The Evening of the Holiday by Shirley Hazzard. I have kept a copy of it on the desk where I write for more than twenty-five years. I reach for it when I am stuck, scared, or bored, when I am at loose ends or bound up tight. I raise it like a sacred text, let it fall open where it will.’ It doesn’t take much to persuade me to pick up a Shirley Hazzard book, since I identify strongly with her wandering lifestyle and cross-cultural observations, but this ringing endorsement activated my trigger-happy finger instantly (I found a second-hand copy of it).
Abir Mukherjee: A Necessary Evil I read the first in this wonderful series set in Raj-era India for the Virtual Crime Book Club and then found another (out of order) at the library). Then other books came along and jostled for priority, but a recent review of Mukherjee’s latest by Mary Picken made me want to go back to it and attempt a bit of a chronological order (which is more important in historical fiction than in other crime series), so I borrowed this second one in the series from the library. Short review to follow soon, but highly recommended.
Annamarie Jagose: In Translation You can blame Lisa Hill from ANZ Lit Lovers blog once again for this hard-to-find book. A translator of Japanese literature, a love triangle and a potential fraud: could this book be any more me than that?? It is out of print (dates from 1994), but I managed to find it second-hand.
Inspired by Twitter
Alberto Prunetti: Down and Out in England and Italy An obvious reference to Orwell’s account of precarious work in Paris and London, I became aware of this book thanks to tweets by Tanya Shadrick and the Working Class Festival. The gig economy is so prevalent nowadays, so a very timely read.
Cristina A. Bejan: Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania. I’ve been following Cristina for a while on Twitter, she is a poet and an academic of Romanian origin, now living in the US. When I saw that her research into the interwar period in Romania (which some see as the ‘golden age of intellectuals and literature’) had been published, I instantly asked her to send me a copy, which she kindly signed for me. It features the world of Mihail Sebastian and his ‘friends’ – need I say more?
Joanna Cannon: A Tidy Ending. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was possibly one of the first books I downloaded from Netgalley back in 2015/16, but I didn’t get to read it until this year (and quite enjoyed it). I also like following the exploits of Joanna and her lovely, goofy German Shepherd Lewis on Twitter, so when I heard she has a new book out and read the blurb, I wanted to read it. I hope it’s not going to be mediocre psychological thriller territory – there have been far too many of those in recent years, they’ve all blended into mush in my mind.
Polly Atkin: Recovering Dorothy I met Polly on a poetry writing retreat in Wales a few years ago and have been following her work ever since. She has been very busy despite lockdown and other issues, and she has recently published not only a new collection of poetry but also a book examining Dorothy Wordsworth’s legacy (despite struggling with poor health and looking after her brother).
Inspired byliterary festivals
Claudia Rankine: Just Us
Natasha Brown: Assembly
Although I felt pretty run-down and ill over the weekend (thank you, older son, for coming all the way from Durham to give me and your brother your tonsillitis and other flu bugs), I attended some of the sessions of the Cambridge Literary Festival (Winter Edition) – luckily, they are all recorded and available to watch until the 28th of November, so I still have time to catch up. I was particularly struck by the mutual admiration and thoughtfulness of the session featuring Natasha Brown and Claudia Rankine, so I ordered their books at once (I have several other Rankine books, but not her latest, and have heard excellent things about Brown’s debut novel).
Fatima Manji: Hidden Heritage
I expected to like the panel above, but what is lovely with these all-access festivals is that you stumble across unexpected delights, such as Fatima Manji describing how she researched the origin of various objects in British museums or forgotten papers in archives, to show the long history of Britain’s fascination with the ‘Orient’. I found out that Queen Victoria spoke and wrote Urdu, that Elizabeth I was corresponding with the women in the Ottoman Sultan’s harem in Topkapi Palace, that coffee houses were bemoaned as dens of iniquity by the ale-houses (for being Turkish temptresses) and so much more.
Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob, transl. Jennifer Croft I’ve wanted this book ever since I heard the author and translator mention it at the Hay Festival in 2018, just after they won the Man Booker International Prize for Flights. In the meantime, many of the bloggers I love have been looking forward to it, and I hope we will exchange views on it even if we don’t do a readalong. I couldn’t quite afford the limited edition of it though, but the Fitzcarraldo newsletter mentioned that they had copies signed by the author at Foyles, so… it was a no-brainer.
Josep Maria Esquirol: The Intimate Resistance, transl, Douglas Suttle Thank you, Fum d’Estampa Press, for keeping me on their mailing list, although I still haven’t reviewed any of the three books they have sent me. I am very interested in this one, however, because it is a work of philosophy, which has now become an area of vivacious debate between my older son and me. He will no doubt have a very long reading list over the holidays, but maybe he will read this one too, and we can compare notes.
Willem Frederick Hermans: The Darkroom of Damocles, Beyond Sleep and An Untouched House, transl. David Colmer. I receive the Pushkin Press newsletter; when they mentioned that they are publishing a new book by Hermans, and would therefore be reducing prices on his three previous books in virtual format, I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss to read work by one of the most respected Dutch writers of the 20th century. Maybe I should have stuck to just one, to see if I liked his style, but as you can see, I don’t do things by halves!
Christine Mangan: Palace of the Drowned. Such serendipity, aka random pick, typically occurs in a library. While picking up my reservations, I saw this recently-published novel by Christine Mangan on display. Although I hadn’t read her previous one, Tangerine, I had hear good things about it, and the blurb for this one: ageing novelist, Venice setting in the 1960s, an over-eager young admirer… yes, it might sound a bit like Death in Venice or The Talented Mr Ripley, but it’s just the sort of thing I cannot resist.
What do all these different sources prove (other than that I am very easily led astray when it comes to books?)
Publisher newsletters or special offers still work a treat
Recommendations from other readers and bloggers are my default option
If I know and like people on Twitter, I will follow their work with interest
I nearly always buy books by friends
Festivals sell books
I love reading books set in a specific location, especially if I know it personally or want to visit that location
A change from all the German-language novellas I have been reading this month. Bessie Head was born in South Africa but had to go into exile in 1964 in Botswana, where she died in 1986 at the far too young age of 49. The novella The Cardinals (115 pages) was written while she was trying to work as a journalist in South Africa in 1960-62, but was never published in her lifetime. Understandable, since it deals with illicit mixed-race relationships, which were considered a punishable crime in South Africa until 1985, but very much frowned upon for a few years after the law was repealed.
Bessie Head herself was the result of just such an illegal unions between a black man and a white woman, therefore never recognised by her family and shunted from one foster home to another during her childhood. This forms the biographical detail for the main character in The Cardinals, Miriam, who is soon nicknamed ‘Mouse’ by her colleagues at the newspaper African Beat. Just like a mouse, she is small, quiet, shy, they barely know she is there, but the name could equally imply drabness as well as a slightly pejorative affection. Mouse is very hesitant about her writing, which she learnt to do almost against all odds. She shows ‘no mean ability’ and soon improves upon the stories that her charismatic older colleague Johnny writes, but she is not the pushy, talkative investigative reporter type. She also seems afraid to open herself up through her writing, to allow her lived experience to seep through.
Writing reveals quite a lot about the writer. This bit here proves to me that you are very much alive inside. What makes you conceal this aliveness behind a mask of death?
The answer is perhaps that this is a frequent response to trauma, to lock your emotions away so that you cannot be hurt again. Mouse seems almost touchingly naive at times, at other times world-weary and cynical, but the reality of newsroom sexism, reports of racial oppression and manipulation of news certainly mature her very quickly.
She is attracted to the bossy and debonair Johnny, whose initial pity for her transforms into a desire to protect her as well as genuine love. He convinces her to move in with him, so that he can help her achieve her full potential as a writer – although it turns out he is not averse to helping her achieve her full potential as a woman too. What neither of them know, however, is that Johnny is in fact her father. The story ends before we find out if the relationship is consummated, or if they ever find out about the taboo they are about to break, but we are made to feel a lot of sympathy for the unwitting protagonists. Readers are left wondering why the author chose to show such a major taboo in a positive light.
The answer is probably because the author is testing our tolerance, while drawing parallels between the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the incest taboo. If you too were raised in a country where sexual relationships between whites and non-whites were considered disgusting, filthy, impossible, even before they became illegal, where the children of such unions were considered the lowest of the low, if not completely invisible… would you not consider this miscegenation to be as subversive as incest?
The other theme of the novella is the emergence of a writer, both in terms of craft, but also finding the right subject matter, those things that you are best placed to write about. Johnny is an infuriating know-it-all at times, and Mouse struggles to accept his tough medicine and advice to her as a writer and a person. Yet you cannot help but feel that the author thinks many of his principles are sound, even though he conveys them too forcefully at times.
A human life is limited so it has to identify itself with a small corner of this earth. Only then is it able to shape its destiny and present its contribution. This need of a country is basic and instinctive in every living being. I don’t care to admit it but historians may say we were a conquered race. Anyway, we were made to feel like the underdog. You cannot feel like the underdog and at the same time feel you belong to a country. It is the duty of the conqueror to abuse you, and treat you like an outcast and alien, and to impose false standards on you. Maybe we can help throw some of those imposed standards overboard. It is a great responsibility to be a writer at this time.
Writing, the author seems to suggest, is about giving voice to the countless people living a zombie-like existence – far too many hours spent on back-breaking, monotonous labour, living in crushing poverty, nothing to look forward to except an often violent death. In such a brutal existence, we have to grab what fleeting joys we can, as the final paragraph indicates:
Just don’t delude yourself you’re safe. Anything can happen. Life is a treacherous quicksand with no guarantee of safety anywhere. We can only try to grab what happiness we can before we are swept off into oblivion.
Yet, although I understood these sentiments, I was somewhat disappointed with this early work of Head’s. This is very much an apprenticeship work, full of clunky expressions. I also struggled with the characters’ motivations. I found Johnny rude to the point of being aggressive, Mouse far too passive and bland (living up to her nickname), the dialogue often too stilted and the reactions of the newspaper colleagues too over the top. Bessie Head went on to write far more subtly and poetically, but as a historical curiosity, one of the few pieces of fiction she wrote while still in South Africa, and as an example of her evolving craft, it remains nevertheless an interesting work.
Jonas Lüscher: Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), 2013. Translated by Peter Lewis and published by Chicago University Press/Haus Publishing.
You might argue that a 192 page book is not a novella, but that is the length of the English-language version. The German version is roughly 120 pages, which makes me wonder whether the English translation also contains some additional notes or simply a larger font and more white spaces.
Lüscher is a contemporary Swiss novelist and essayist. He studied philosophy and therefore seems to delight in writing books that pose a bit of an ethical dilemma or a larger existential question. His second novel, Kraft, is about an aging, out-of-kilter German professor trying to win a prize by demonstrating to a Silicon Valley audience that ‘our world is still, despite all evidence, the best of all possible worlds, and how we might improve it even further through technology’. That should make it clear that the author loves satire, and this is obvious in his first book too, Barbarian Spring.
Written soon after the 2008 financial crash but well before the Brexit referendum and all that followed, the book makes fun of the UK’s banking industry (one might say ‘the pot calling the kettle black’) but has a more profound message about just how quickly our trappings of civilisation can disappear when faced with a crisis. I will share the blurb with you for a plot summary, because I don’t think I can write a better one myself:
Preising, Swiss industrialist and garrulous fusspot, finds himself in Tunisia, attending the wedding of two City traders from London. At an old Berber oasis transformed into a luxury resort, the bride rides in on a camel to take her vows. The ludicrous excesses of these braying, young, high-flying wealth-creators knows no bounds. But as they carouse the night away, sterling stands on the brink of collapse and Britannia looks set to slip beneath the waves of bankruptcy and chaos. Next morning, with thumping heads and their credit cards maxed out, and as the first rumblings of the Arab Spring grip their host country, the Bright Young Neo-Thatcherites stage a revolt of their own with unimaginably grotesque and blackly humorous consequences.
The story is told in a rather unusual way. Preising is prattling away, telling his story to the actual first-person narrator. They are both of them recovering from some kind of mental breakdown in a sanatorium. I wasn’t sure why this distancing device was necessary in such a short novel, but it does allow the narrator to comment more critically on Preising’s own interpretation of the story. Not that we are in any doubt that he is a rather unreliable narrator, well-meaning but weak, fairly observant about others, but at the same time rather blind to his own cultural relativism and liberalism ‘shallow as a children’s paddling pool’. He is a complete Mr Average, who has inherited his family’s business, run quite efficiently by the scrappy Bosnian immigrant Prodanovic, who uses him as a figurehead of dependability, but sends him out of the way whenever important decisions are being made.
This is how he ends up in the very upmarket Tunisian resort (designed to resemble what Westerners expect a Berber or Touareg camp to be like, although the architect did point out that there were no Touaregs in Tunisia). Supposedly, he is there to finalise a deal with one of their Tunisian suppliers, who owns the resort (among many other pies), but there doesn’t seem to be much for him to do, so he befriends the parents of the bridegroom of a wedding party, a financial trader who has brought all of his equally swanky, spoilt friends to the resort.
Of course all their luxury and high jinks become a desperate scrabble for survival, as the resort manager – uncertain of ever being paid for the whole wedding party – stops giving them any food and closes the pool and other amenities, while an Arab Spring type uprising turns against the rich and corrupt Tunisian owners as well. Some Lord-of-the-Flies-type scenes follow, including a particularly graphic one involving camel death. Turns out we are never too far from descending into barbarity, but in the end the narrator is left wondering what the whole point of Preising’s story was, and whether there was anything to be learnt from it.
I too couldn’t help but wonder about that. I enjoyed the satirical tone and the scene-setting, but found it took too long to reach the point of economic collapse (aside from the fact that the complete and utter collapse of a country and its currency is rather far-fetched, Argentina, Venezuela and recent examples of bankruptcy and defaulting on debts notwithstanding). ‘While Preising slept, England went under.’ By way of contrast, the scenes following the collapse were rather too rushed, hurtling towards a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion. The suave swerve into dystopia was not quite as elegant as with J. G. Ballard or Don DeLillo, but it was amusing nonetheless. For UK politics watchers, there was the additional bonus of visualising David Cameron in this scene (it was too early for Boris Johnson):
In effect, what Preising was presenting me with here was a variation on the theme of ‘Where were you when Britain went bankrupt?’. This genre had recently taken over from the earlier ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ […] Likewise, we all now vividly remember the moment when the fresh-faced PM in his baby-blue silk tie – which I always considered an unduly optimistic and frivolous choice under the circumstances – commenced his speech with the words ‘In thirteen hundred and forty-five, when King Edward the Third told his Florentine bankers…’ Sure, it had a far less iconic image than 9/11, but it’s still seared on our collective memory.
It’s these satirical moments about globalism that really lifted the work for me, even when it felt a little top-heavy in terms of structure. A sharp, witty debut, which certainly makes me curious to search for the second novel by this author.
We move seamlessly from Austria to the eastern regions of Switzerland in Appenzell with Friedrich Glauser’s Die Speiche (The Spoke)– previously published under the title Krock & Co. You can find an English translation of it (and other Studer novels) by Mike Mitchell with Bitter Lemon Press.
This is the fifth novel (or novella, really at 134 pages) featuring the genial Wachtmeister (Sergeant) Jakob Studer, and the first one to be commissioned by a journal in 1937. Glauser was sure it would turn his fortune around and that his work would finally start to sell. However, it meant that he had to cut down descriptions and unessential elements and focus solely on the plot, as he complained in letters to friends. His role model was Simenon with his ability to knock out Maigret novels in six weeks. But Glauser was no Maigret and he struggled with deadlines, kept rewriting this work and in the end considered it a failure. The edition that I read, published by Metro Unionsverlag in Zürich in 1999, is based on the original manuscript rather than the published feuilleton version, reintroducing some of the atmospheric descriptions and dialogues.
Studer is a middle-aged policeman, who should by rights have been a chief inspector or higher by now, but was demoted to sergeant because of political insubordination. So you know at once that he is a man of principles, a committed investigator who will stop at nothing to get to the truth – but in this book we see him also as a family man and get an insight into his countryside childhood. He is very human, and solves the case mostly by interacting with the people around him, relying on gut instinct, eating and drinking well, and getting other policemen in Paris or Mannheim to do the research for him. (That does remind me of Maigret, although there are also hints of Sherlock Holmes in the way Studer works with shortcuts in logic.)
The plot is as follows: Sergeant Studer is in an Appenzell village for the wedding of his daughter. The body of a visiting clerk from a St Gallen law firm is found behind the inn run by a former childhood friend of Studer’s. The murder weapon is a sharpened bicycle spoke, which points the finger of blame to the bicycle repairman whose workshop is right next door to the inn. A little too convenient, is what Studer thinks. So, although he is supposedly on holiday, he sends his daughter and wife back home, keeps his new son-in-law (also a policeman) behind to help, and decides to investigate matters himself.
The investigation itself lost me a little bit, with lots of names cropping up, and many events taking place off-stage. But I wasn’t reading it for the plot. What Glauser does so well is recreate the feel for a place and its people, as well as the relationship between the characters, often through dialogue. There is one particularly satisfying scene, where he is interviewing a possible suspect in a barn/workshop and a piglet, a sheep, a goat and other animals cuddle up to them for warmth, in something resembling a nativity scene.
The author was somewhat worried that he might not be accurate in rendering the feel and dialect of the local area, since Studer was from the Bern area of Switzerland. The author himself was born in Vienna, and was only sent to Switzerland at the age of 12, after trying to run away from his school in Austria repeatedly. The novella itself is written mostly in ‘high German’ but with typical Swiss mannerisms: the use of diminutives in ‘li’ for instance, or the use of the definite article – what’s worse, the neutral article ‘das’ in front of a girl’s name – das Anni, instead of die Anni, or Jakob Studer becoming Köbu for his friends and family. However, the locals do use some dialect on occasion, and to me it sounds just about the right amount to add to the local colour, but not confuse the reader. I am not sure, however, how to render that in English!
Glauser was very hard on himself and his writing, so no one would be more surprised than him to know that nowadays there is a prestigious prize in Swiss crime literature named after him. It is a terrible shame we lost him so soon, it would have been interesting to see what else he might have written during and after the Second World War.
Marlen Haushofer: Wir töten Stella (WeKill Stella). [And a special review bonus: Sara Gran’s Come Closer]
Marlen Haushofer is the high priestess of succinct, almost detached narration that conceals something profoundly moving and horrific. This 54 page novella will pierce your heart and mess with your mind – if you can read it in German, because, alas, it has not been translated into English. You can, however, try and catch a filmed version of it (translated as Killing Stella) directed by Julian Roman Pölsler, who also directed The Wall based on Marlen Haushofer’s far more famous novel. You can catch a short trailer for the film below (in German, also).
The plot is simple: the narrator Anna remembers the past year or so, and how the death of young Stella came about. We know from the outset that Stella died and that our narrator feels somehow responsible for this, so I’m not divulging any spoilers.
Stella is the daughter of an old friend of the narrator Luise (‘frenemy’ would be the more correct term, as Anna despises her desperate attempts to remain young and sexually desirable) and comes to live with the narrator and her family for a year, so that she can attend a commercial school in the city. Initially, the family (Anna, her husband Richard, their fifteen year old son Wolfgang and their younger daughter Annette) are slightly annoyed and amused by the ‘country bumpkin’. Stella is bored with her studies, but seems to have no other passions or interests, dresses badly, and appears incurably naive, shy and polite. Despite Richard’s derision of her, they end up having an affair – a situation that Anna was almost expecting, but that she feels unable to stop. When Richard, an inveterate womaniser, moves on, Stella struggles to accept the situation, especially since she has been forced into an abortion too, and commits suicide – or it could have been an accident, as the family reassures itself hastily. The ‘we’ in the title is significant – every member of the family has had a part to play in driving Stella to her death.
It’s a simple story, but what is fascinating is the ambiguity of Anna as a narrator, and the strange, detached, almost other-worldly voice that Haushofer gives her. Anna is telling this story in first person, while she looks out of the window into the garden – something she does for hours on end, She prefers that to actually going into the garden itself, which has always proved disappointing – she prefers to have that distance and the glass wall between her and reality. She notices a baby bird that seems to have fallen out of its nest, and is struggling to move and calling for its mother. Anna keeps telling herself that the mother cannot be that far away, that she will show up and help, but as the day goes on, the cries of the bird get more desperate, and then weaker. The baby bird dies on Anna’s watch, yet not for a moment does Anna step outside into the garden to attempt to rescue it in any way, in a horrible but telling parallel to the story about Stella. ‘I cannot help him [the bird] and therefore I must try to forget him.’
It’s all too easy to write Anna off as an unreliable narrator, but if she is one, it is because she herself is conflicted and nowhere near as in control as she would like to be. From the very outset, we hear that Anna’s nerves are shot to pieces, that she has become fearful, agoraphobic, almost paranoid – all clear manifestations of guilt. At the same time, she refuses to delve too deeply into her complicity, all she wants is for life to return to ‘normal’. Yet what is normal in this ‘good’ bourgeois household of the 1950s, in conservative, Catholic Austria?
Haushofer is too clever to give us a definitive explanation for Anna’s passive nature, but there are many hints. Anna is treated like property by her husband, whom she seems to fear and tolerate rather than love. She has often thought of escaping her marriage, but is either too afraid, feels too useless, or else has become too cynical about the outside world. She is unhealthily obsessed with her son and fears losing his love and respect more than anything else. Her daughter reminds her too much of her husband, she is one of nature’s sunny, thoughtless people. ‘Annette is too healthy and happy for me to truly love her’, Anna observes, while she herself overanalyses everything, and is therefore stuck in analysis paralysis. She also seems to harbour some suicidal thoughts, almost envying Stella for her ability to break free of this burden called life… and resigning oneself to an unfulfilled life.
I read somewhere that you can get used to anything and that the force of habit is the strongest force in our lives. I don’t believe that. I think that is just an excuse that we use, so that we don’t have to think about other peoples’ suffering, or indeed about our own suffering. It is true that humans can bear a lot of things, but it’s not because they get used to it, but because within them there is a faint spark of hope that some day they might break free of the habit… If the first attempt to break free is unsuccessful – and it usually is – then we try again, but the second impulse is weaker, and leaves us even more bitter and beaten up.
And so Richard continues to down his red wine, and chases after women and money, my friend Luise continues to chat up men young enough that she could be their mother, while I continue to stand in front of the window and stare out into the garden. Stella, this stupid young person, was successful at her very first attempt at escape.
My own translation.
You could argue that female emancipation has come a long way since the 1950s, but I still know so many women (not just of the older generation, but of my age and younger) who are clinging onto unsatisfactory relationships for the sake of the children or for financial reasons, and tell themselves stories that enable them to continue to lead their lives without rocking the boat too much.
It is incredible how much the author manages to fit into very few pages, how complex the thought processes are, and how much there is to read between the lines. Every word counts with Marlen Haushofer. This is tightrope walking on the very edge of the precipice (or the verge of a mental breakdown) and you keep reading to see just how the narrator can pull it off.
Sara Gran: Come Closer
The ambiguous narrator in Gran’s short novel (almost a novella, 165 pages with lots of blank spaces) is not just on the verge of a mental breakdown, but actually plunges into it before our (horrified) eyes – or rather, into demonic possession. Amanda is a successful architect who has just moved into a rather lovely loft apartment with her husband. It starts off with unexplained tapping noises, escalates with unprofessional conduct at work, uncontrollable urges to shoplift or hurt others, start smoking again or hooking up with strangers in bars. And it just gets more and more self-destructive and dangerous to others from there onwards. Amanda thinks she knows her demon, a beautiful wild woman called Naamah, and she makes sporadic efforts to exorcise her, but at other times she is exhilarated by the things the demon makes her do… and we start to wonder if it isn’t a split personality or some form of schizophrenia. Or perhaps another attempt at escape – a far more active one than Marlen Haushofer’s Anna.
Of course she fought at first. They all do. And then they see the possibilities and they’re happy to go along. She could have gone on forever, in her small lonely life. But sometimes the door to a bigger life opens, and it isn’t so easy to say No. You can’t spend your whole life saying No. Sometimes you have to say Yes, and see where it takes you.
I love the ambiguity of it, that there are hints at Amanda’s past or the small dissatisfactions in her present-day life which might make her susceptible to ‘demon attacks’. This book too has a real sense of malevolence and menace, although the horror is more graphic than in Marlen Haushofer’s work. Both authors, however, have a slightly detached, almost deadpan style at times, the kind of voice I can hear echoing for days afterwards in my head. Ultimately, just like with We Kill Stella, this book refuses to give us any clear-cut answers. Both these stories fit into a long line of prestigious ‘uncanny’ portrayals of the female psyche by such writers as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson or, more recently, Carmen Maria Machado.