There just aren’t enough hours in the week to review all the books I read, and some of them I don’t even feel compelled to review. This weekend I also had two DNF experiences one after the other! However, the ones below fall into the interesting category, so I will share some snippets from them to give you flavour.
Jane Campbell: Cat Brushing
This collection of short stories has a viewpoint that is seldom seen in Western literature: the desires of older women. In the title story, the narrator finds similarities with the once-beautiful, now elderly cat that she brushes, reflecting upon her own sensuous past and how both of them are now unnecessary and ‘on sufferance’ in her son’s household. Several of the stories reflecting on past loves and missed opportunities, but some are also about making the most of the present, even if you are in a care home.
‘All the old people here have exercises recommended for them by our inhouse staff.’
A great wave of hatred surged through me. Was I, having struggled over long years through the heartbreak of lovers deserting me, good fortune eluding me, children disappearing, money slipping from my grasp, of having survived all the random acts of cruelty that life can inflict upon an ordinary person, was I to be denied the luxury of wallowing in a bit of giref and sadness and melancholy if I wanted to?
A classic Ancient Greek comedy, and an anti-war pamphlet too. The women of Athens and Sparta (and other Greek cities) resolve to deny their men any sexual fulfillment until they put an end to the civil war ravaging the country. All the more remarkable for the portrayal of militant women, when we know that their status in Ancient Greece was very low, they were not considered full citizens. Amazing also, how current the political statements still are!
Like the raw fleece in the wash tub, first
you must cleanse the city of dirt.
As we beat out the muck and pick out the burrs,
you must pluck out the pace-seekers, sack the spongers
out of their sinecure offices, rip off their heads –
then the common skein of good sense:
blend the good aliens, the allies, the strangers,
even the debtors, into one ball;
consider the colonies scattered threads,
pick up their ends and gather them quick,
make one magnificent bobbin and weave
a garment of government fit for the people!
Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow, 2: Dance and Dream, transl. Margaret Jull Costa.
I will almost certainly review the entire trilogy once I finish it, but I’m taking my time to savour reading this. There are so many times that I nod along in recognition when I read those hypnotic, spiralling sentences. He really does get me, this author, and it would be a shame not share at least a fragment of one of those endless sentences as I go along.
No, you are never what you are – not entirely, not exactly – when you’re alone and living abroad and ceaselessly speaking a language not your own or not your first language… the word ‘absence’ loses meaning, depth and force with each hour that passes and that you pass far away from home – and then the expression ‘far away’ also loses meaning, depth and force – the time of our absence accumulates gradually like a strange parenthesis that does not really count and which shelters us only as it might commutable, insubstantial ghosts, and for which, thereferoe, we need render an account to no one, not even to ourselves…
A very appropriate starting point for our Six Degrees of Separation game this month, hosted as always by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. A wintry book set in Alaska, entitled The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, based upon the Russian folk tale Snegurochka. I’m ashamed to say that, although it is probably one of the first books I ever got on the Kindle after receiving the device as a birthday present way back in 2012, I still haven’t read it.
So my logical starting point will be another book that has been the longest on my Kindle – this time a Netgalley download. Not quite as long as The Snow Child, but The Cartel by Don Winslow has been waiting patiently since June 2015. I’ve heard very good things about it, perhaps I was waiting for the appropriate happier time when the hardcore drug wars on the Mexican/American border wouldn’t feel too depressing… and those happier times just never seemed to come!
From the oldest to the most recent Netgalley download: Haruki Murakami’s essay collection Novelist as a Vocation. I enjoyed his book about running (and writing) very much at a time when I was doing both, so let’s see if this inspires me to start writing more regularly.
My next link is to a book about a novelist that I have just read recently: Yellowface by R. F. Kuang – except that in that novel the novelist is less concerned about craft, and more about fame – and will do anything to achieve it, including stealing someone else’s work and pretending to be of Chinese heritage.
A very simple link next, another title with the word ‘yellow’ in it: Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley, his debut novel in fact and a satire of the 1920s English society and country house lifestyle. With the exception of Brave New World, Huxley seems to have fallen out of fashion recently, but I have always enjoyed this novel which is very much based upon several real-life characters who also intersected with the Bloomsbury Group (Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Dora Carrington and so on).
Another person who was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group (and supposedly the only living writer that Virginia Woolf was jealous of) was Katherine Mansfield. Perhaps her best-known short story collection is The Garden Party, but my favourite one (and the one I am linking to here) is Bliss and Other Stories. One of the stories in that collection, Je ne parle pas français, a strange little cross-cultural love triangle with homoerotic undertones, links to my final book today.
David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of essays and memoir pieces, not all of them equally appealing to me, but I do want to put a good word in for the title one, which is about the author taking French classes in Paris and the way he and his fellow classmates struggle with the language. As an expat in France, and someone who is currently murdering the Italian language with my classmates on Zoom, I find that particular story very relatable and funny.
So my six degrees have taken me from Alaska to the Mexican border, Japan to Washington DC, England and Paris. Where will your literary travels take you this month?
It’s the time of the year when all I want to do is drop everything and hide away in a cosy little place, preferably in the mountains, preferably with snow and skiing nearby, with a log fireplace and plenty of good books to keep me happy.
Although at times I felt like I wouldn’t be able to read anything at all this month, and although I was also engaged in the epic chunkster that is Solenoid, I did actually have a reasonably good and varied reading month. 10 books, of which five fit in the German Literature Month category and two in the Novella in November category. I even managed to review all four German-language books I read – including the biography of the woman who is fast becoming my favourite Austrian writer. Seven books by foreign authors, one collection of short stories (which tends to be a rarity), two non-fiction titles (again, a bit unusual for me, one of them a biography). Only three crime fiction titles, of which one was a translation from German.
My favourite this month was probably the Marlen Haushofer novella The Loft (Die Mansarde). The most escapist wasThe Peacockby Isabel Bogdan.
I had also planned to attend several literary and theatrical events this month: Iceland Noir, a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, several trips to the cinema, a RADA performance, an online performance of Shakespeare by cues only, a musical at Sonning Mill. In the end, I only managed to see two of our Icelandic Corylus authors in an online discussion with Dr Noir for Barnet Libraries on the very first day of November, plus the rather forgettable One Piece Red anime film and a disappointing Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (muddled storytelling, some lovely cinematography) in the cinema.
Reading plans for the final month of the year? I usually like books set in snowy landscapes for December, but this year I will stick to whatever suits my mood while finishing some of the chunksters I had planned: volumes 2 and 3 of Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias, Tessa Hadley’s The Past. Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time. A few lighter reads will no doubt make their way there as well, as I need to forget the rather gloomy second half of this year and turn with renewed optimism to face the New Year.
Daniela Strigl: Wahrscheinlich bin ich verrückt… Marlen Haushofer – die Biographie. (I’m Probably Mad: the Biography of MH) List, 2007.
I was planning to read several novellas for German Literature Month (and thus fulfil a double function, to fit Novella in November Month too), but I got sidetracked once I finished Marlen Haushofer’s The Loft. I had acquired this biography of Marlen a year or two ago, after being so impressed with the few books of hers I’d managed to find and read in German. I knew the broad outlines of her life, but this time I could not resist delving a little deeper.
Marlen was born Maria Helene Frauendorfer in 1920 in Upper Austria. Her father was a qualified forester, while her mother was also descended from a forester family but had tried to escape her family fate by working as a maid for a noblewoman in her youth, travelling all over the world and staying in luxurious hotels. Marlen was a lively little girl who enjoyed the great outdoors and the freedom of wandering in the forests, playing with animals, listening to stories told by her favourite uncle – she later described those early years as quite idyllic, although she did suffer when her brother Rudi, the apple of her mother’s eye, was born.
All this was well-known to me. What I did not realise was just what a fall from paradise it was for Marlen to be sent to a convent school in Linz at the age of ten. She was one of the brightest girls in her class, but she was homesick, became depressed and succumbed to TB. She interrupted her studies to go to a sanatorium, and then fell promptly ill again. She finished school just after the Anschluss and was forced to do a year of civil service on the eastern borders of the German empire. In 1940 she started studying philosophy, German and art history in Vienna, which is where she met Manfred Haushofer, who was studying medicine. I knew that they got married in 1941 but what I did not know was that before the wedding Marlen had given birth to a little boy whose father was not Manfred, but a German student whom she had met a year earlier. Manfred accepted her illegitimate child, but he lived apart from them for a long time, even after they had a son of their own in 1942.
Manfred and Marlen settled in the little town of Steyr (a truly provincial town not far from her parents in Upper Austria) and opened a dental clinic together (Marlen helping out with the admin). Although this should have been a lucrative business, Marlen’s husband proved hopeless with money, always dashing after shiny gadgets and cars and other women, so they were never very well off. Marlen started writing, and had her champions in Vienna, but overall was not taken very seriously by the Viennese literary circles and experienced multiple rejections. Although she moved in the same circles as Ingeborg Bachmann, Ilse Aichinger, Thomas Bernhard, she was often mocked as the ‘provincial egg, the dentist’s wife, the forester’s daughter’.
I had always wondered why Marlen divorced her husband in 1950, only to then get remarried to him in 1958. I suspected he was a serial womaniser, which was true, and the last straw was when he had a serious relationship with one of Marlen’s best friends. However, I was stunned to discover that they continued to live in the same house and work together in the dental practice, that very few people (not even their children) knew that they were actually divorced, and that they both pursued other relationships during their years of estrangement. Marlen did not seem at all blind to her husband’s faults, nor was she deeply in love with him any longer, so why did she remarry him? She once told a friend that ‘you cannot be divorced in Steyr’. Perhaps, like the narrator inThe Loft, she craved the comfort of routine. Perhaps she was disappointed by her occasional forays into Viennese cultural life and the other men in her life proved disappointing as well. She complained about not having enough time to write, of being a victim of her domestic arrangements, and yet she seemed reluctant to rid herself of her chains. As one of her writer friends said: ‘You know where you are going wrong, Marlen? If your husband asks you for a slice of bread and butter, you immediately make three for him.’
Her health had never been brilliant, so she mostly ignored the hip pain that started plaguing her in the mid-1960s. In 1968 she was diagnosed with bone cancer, which she kept hidden from friends and even her immediate family for as long as she could. This was a family where hardly anything was ever openly discussed. She died just a few weeks short of her fiftieth birthday in 1970.
The biographer Daniela Strigl interviewed family members and friends of Marlen Haushofer, as well as researching the archives. I wasn’t entirely convinced by her extensive use of quotes from Marlen’s novels to illustrate biographical details, but am not sure what else she could have done, because Marlen systematically destroyed all of her diaries (with one small exception) and the letters she received. Luckily, some of her correspondents kept the letters she sent them, but even then it would be a mistake to believe that this enigmatic author always meant exactly what she wrote. She wrote for maximum effect, in what was often a devastatingly cynical way that was in direct contrast to her apparently settled bourgeois housewifely existence. She was such a secretive person that her friends could never quite agree what she was like, whether she was happy or not – or even the colour of her eyes.
I’ll end with a few quotes from Marlen’s writings, some from her fiction, some from her personal papers:
You should never ask for too much, then you can never receive too little.
I find myself here in a place where I do not belong, living among people who know nothing of me, half of my strength is wasted on the effort of remaining inconspicuous. The older I get, the more I realise how hopelessly entangled all of us are, and I envy the person who never becomes aware of this.
She has become that friendly, slightly distracted woman who goes for a walk with her child, reads novels, receives her guests, puts flowers into vases, and generally feels life trickling away from her gently, without regrets. One of the many women whose will is broken, who are no longer really there. No matter how she chooses to live her life, she will sit there on that stone today, with the suspicion in her heart that she has picked the wrong path.
In spite of all my efforts, I seem stuck… I have the feeling, I am wasting all of my strength. I would not take pleasure in writing a successful book if I had the feeling I had let my family down. I really think it is impossible to be a good person and a good artist at the same time.
Marlen’s final letter, a sort of literary testament, which she wrote a week or so before her death, is truly heartbreaking, yet without the faintest hint of self-pity or self-indulgence:
Do not worry. You have seen too much and too little, just like everyone before you. You have cried too much, maybe too little, just like everyone before you. Maybe you have loved and hated too much – but not for long – twenty years or so. What are twenty years anyway? After that, part of you died, just like it did for all people who can no longer love nor hate […] Do not worry. Everything will have been in vain, just like it has always been. A completely normal story.
This is my last contribution to the German Literature Month extravaganza, but do please head over to the website hosted by Marcia (aka Lizzy Siddal) to see what other people have read this November.
When things go against you and the entire family collapses with something that could be flu or bronchitis or tonsillitis or all three rolled into one, one should stick to what one knows and likes best, namely my beloved chateaux or manor houses, which is how Friday Fun got started.
In previous years, I might have been tempted to do a World Cup of stately homes from the countries participating in the FIFA World Cup, but this year it has been so problematic (not that I was any happier about 2018) that I will just stick to a few sturdy favourites. Oh, and they all are (or were until recently) for sale, so better hurry!
While my little household was visited by bronchitis, tonsillitis, RSV, coughing till your rib cage hurts and other such delightful guests, I needed something less demanding to read for German Literature Month. So I turned to the comedic delights of The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan, translated by Annie Rutherford and published by the wonderful V&Q Books.
Lord and Lady McIntosh are renting out parts of their dilapidated estate in the Scottish Highlands, but it all reaches crisis point when a group of investment bankers descend upon them for their off-site teambuilding exercise in the depths of winter, while their housekeeper has broken her arm, a peacock is running riot, and a snowstorm is on its way. Rather than descending into a Golden Age murder mystery (although at times the participants might be tempted to wring each other’s necks), it becomes a comedy of manners with moments of high drama and farce.
It was indeed a fun read, showing that Germans do have a healthy sense of humour: a satire about corporate teambuilding, British plumbing and draughty homes, as well as the renowned British love for animals which lives alongside their love for hunting. It is not at all vicious satire though: every one of the characters is redeemable, despite their obvious flaws. There is depth behind each stereotype: the iron lady boss, the suck-up, the older nerd and so on.
As the translator says in her note at the back of the book, ‘the idea of a German book set in Scotland and translated “back” into English was clearly a novel one’. But why would that be the case? We read books by American and British authors set in foreign countries ALL the time and many of them do not even depict expats: Donna Leon, Victoria Hislop, Alexander McCall Smith, take a bow!
The latest example of this is Berlin by Bea Setton, yet another book in the growing list of ‘expats moving to Berlin in the hope of starting with a blank slate and finding you can’t outrun your own bad habits and impulses’. [Rest assured that when I move to Berlin, I intend to continue the very boring middle-aged life that I have here in the UK – just with more freedom of movement and time to dedicate to literary pursuits.] It forms a perfect counterpoint to The Peacock, as it is almost entirely self-centred rather than focusing on a larger cast of characters. Written in the first person, with an unreliable narrator named Daphne – or, if we’re feeling generous, a narrator who is deceiving herself as much as she is attempting (and often succeeding) at deceiving others – we explore nearly a year in the life she is attempting to create for herself, albeit half-heartedly, in Berlin. The only thing she seems to be serious about is German grammar and vocabulary: she fails to establish any meaningful relationships, she sponges off her wealthy and far too unconcerned parents and therefore doesn’t have to work for a living, and she drifts along, a voyeur to her own life, not even decadent enough to come apart at the seams via clubbing, drugs and wild sex life (like the other Berlin-set expat novels I have read over the past year). The only thing she seems obsessive about is her running and controlling her eating, and inventing various subterfuges to disguise her eating disorder from her acquaintances.
The kind of book that made me feel old and grumpy, as I lost patience with the ‘first world problems of young people from privileged Western backgrounds today’.
This very bare-bones review is my third for #GermanLitMonth, and I hope to write one more on the biography of Marlen Haushofer. Meanwhile, I would recommend The Peacock as a delightfully escapist but not saccharine read – although the author underestimates how much the English investment bankers might drink!
Volker Kutscher: The March Fallen, trans. Niall Sellar, Sandstone Press.
A return to the German Literature Month reading with the most recent book in the Babylon Berlin series, although in this book there is far less of the Weimar decadence and much more of the ruthlessness of the Nazis. I have been captivated both by the books and by the TV series, although the adaptation is not 100% faithful to the books. Most interesting of all, the main protagonist, Gereon Rath, is a deeply flawed, often unlikeable individual, and it appears that the actor playing him may be more similar to the character than we might have expected.
February 1933 and the city of Berlin believes that Hitler and his rabble are only a passing fashion, and the upcoming elections will return things to normal. Charly and Gereon are about to get married (if you haven’t read the previous book in the series, as I hadn’t, then this might come as a bit of a surprise, so apologies for the spoilers), Charly is about to be promoted to the rank of inspector, but she is not happy at being sidelined in the Women’s CID, where the type of crimes they investigate are graffiti and runaway youths. Meanwhile, Gereon is part of a team investigating the murder of a homeless war veteran, who had been lying for several days unnoticed under the railway arches. Or at least, he was investigating that until the arson attack on the Reichstag, when he suddenly finds himself working alongside Hitler’s brownshirts to interrogate Communists.
Another war veteran, but of a higher social and military rank, Baron von Reddock, identifies the victim and claims that his own life might be in danger. For the victim, the baron and a few other soldiers all witnessed a nasty incident during the war and were involved in hiding some gold, which has since gone missing. The Baron has just written a book about it, which will be serialised in a newspaper, and he suspects that the man bent on killing them all is a Jewish captain who was believed to have died during the war.
With the anti-semitic feelings raging in Germany, the investigation turns into a manhunt rather than exploring all options. Gereon wants to keep his head down and not get involved in politics, but it is getting harder and harder to sit on the fence. Charly, with her far keener sense of justice, is suffering so much in her division, hearing all her female colleagues praise the Führer, that she takes sick leave, and uses that time to try and track down a young orphan girl who is said to be a lunatic after setting fire to a homeless shelter. She too seems to be targeted by the killer.
As you can imagine, the case itself is full of twists and turns, but what is most interesting about this book is to see that people whom Charly and Gereon considered friends have suddenly sided with the Nazis, whether for personal gain or because they genuinely believe in their ideology. Although Gereon does not stomach the Nazis any more than Charly does, he is equally sceptical about the Communists and believes that the messy democracy of the Weimar is to blame for the rise of Hitler and his party.
Much like Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, this is well-researched historical crime fiction with a moral compass and a bite, revealing how difficult it is for the ‘masses’ to even realise the dangerous road they are about to be led on.
Sometimes Charly felt as if Berlin had been full of people just waiting for this government who were now, suddenly, revealing their true colours. As if the whole time somewhere deep under this city there had been another, darker Berlin that was seeping upwards like sewage rising in the street. That wasn’t true, of course, it was the same people inhabiting the same Berlin. The new government simply had a talent for bringing out the worst in its citizens.
I absolutely love this series, but it is in danger of not being translated any further. Sandstone Press were crowdfunding for the translation and publication of the next novel Lunapark, which takes place in 1934. Sadly, they were unable to reach their funding goal, so work on this novel has been cancelled (or, hopefully, postponed). As a small indie publisher of translated crime fiction, I can fully empathise with this tricky situation.
The London Reads the World Book Club (which stretches far beyond the confines of London, as we have people calling in from Italy and the US, as well as me just outside the M25) reads books in translation. For November, we had chosen not one but two books, which work very well together: Chilean writer Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire, translated by Daniel Hahn, and Hahn’s Catching Fire, a real-time diary of blog posts that he wrote while translating the book, now reunited in one volume.
Both are published by the tiny but mighty Charco Press, who specialises in Latin American literature, and whom I’ve loved since it first appeared on the publishing scene. I had followed Danny’s diary as he was writing it, but missed the occasional post and had forgotten most of it, so it was a lovely reread. But it was my first time reading the book. Most of us in the book club read the diary first and then the book, and I think I would recommend doing it that way round, because the book itself can be quite a challenging read, so it helps to know a bit more about it. We were also fortunate to have Danny join us on Zoom and tell us even more about his experience of translating the book, which added to my understanding and appreciation of it.
I admit that I admired rather than loved the book – because I found the subject matter quite difficult. It takes place mostly in the small flat, in the bed even, of a couple who used to belong to an underground revolutionary cell in the past, and who have lost a child because back then they did not dare to go the hospital and thereby risk discovery. We don’t find out much more than that, this could take place at any time (it’s been fifty years, a century, a thousand years since Franco died) and in any country that has experienced a dictatorial regime where protest was punishable with torture and imprisonment. But we could also be talking about a radical leftist group like the FARC, since there seems to be talk about discipline, training of cadres, carrying out orders. The plot, such as it is, is so obliquely done that some of us thought the narrator was talking about an abortion rather than a child. I was convinced the two revolutionaries were getting old, because there is constant talk of physical pain, of bones and limbs struggling to unfold. However, Danny pointed out that even that is not beyond doubt, as it could be that their bodies are suffering the consequences of torture or years of living ‘underground’ with no medical services, rather than age.
Nevertheless, it feels to me like a novel about the loss of revolutionary ideals and beliefs, seeing that the world has not changed so much after all, in spite of all the personal sacrifices that the rebels have made. Yet there are hints that even the idealistic youthful impulses were not quite as spontaneous and free as one might think.
… we used to take each other’s hands at the sound of The Internationale, its music, its words that are so eloquent or persuasive, a mythical line-up of elated bodies that are young, so young and already shackled to The Internationale as we sealed an urgent commitement to history and you sang and I struggled to fix the song’s words in my mind, I didn’t want to get them wrong, it was dangerous, yes, changing a single word or a syllable within those great sparking lines and transforming the song, the International no less, into trouble, demolishing it utterly to rubble.
It is rare to encounter a book that is, as the translator describes it, so uncompromising. The author makes no concessions for the reader: she refuses to disambiguate events, characters, who is speaking, or what has happened. The ambiguity is deliberate, everything in the book feels slippery, all our knowledge and certainties are ready to fall at any minute. You can tell that this is a deliberate effect, because there are also passages that are more literal, that are descriptive and simple: where the female narrator goes out into the world and cares for old people in their homes. The descriptions of wiping their bums and cleaning their dirty bedsheets are not the most lyrical, but they are deeply affecting and therefore effective. Yet I was equally as fascinated by the infuriatingly repetitive passages, the incriminations and self-justifications as the couple argue with each other. You don’t often get a glimpse of what the Baader-Meinhof gang might have been like if they’d grown old and disillusioned (and less terrorist). The only way to read this book is to allow yourself to be taken into its wildwater like a raft and emerge somewhat shaken and most definitely stirred on the other side.
But as a translator, of course, you cannot do that. So how can you recreate that effect in another language, without completely confusing the reader and making them want to give up? Especially when in English you might miss even the small clues you get in Spanish regarding gender or number of people speaking. I think he has succeeded very well in conveying that sense of discombobulation and claustrophobia that the novel provokes in its readers.
I would recommend reading the two books in tandem, as we did, although perhaps not when you are reading other books in parallel which are also slippery, tricky and delve deep into the human psyche (like Solenoid and The Loft). I think I need something very light and fluffy now, for a change.