I never understood why the Almodovar film was called Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, because my experience with literature has been that it’s mainly the men who are moody, depressed, angry and existentially musing about it. I’ve been reading a lot of books by women lately, but, as coincidence would have it, the three last ones I read were by men in the throes of what might be called a mid-life crisis, even if they are not all middle-aged. And they all take place in different countries: Switzerland, Sweden and Russia.
Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs (My Neighbour Urs)
In this charming collection of apparently harmless little stories about small-town life in Olten, Switzerland, Capus shows us the gnashing teeth under the veneer of politeness. Yet he does it with humour and grace, laughing both at himself and his fellow citizens. This is a gently mocking midlife crisis.
The narrator (or author, the two are very tightly linked) has five neighbours, all called Urs. Actually, there are six of them, but one doesn’t want to appear in a book. They all gather in the square outside their houses on balmy summer evenings and chat about random this and that, and sometimes even about the important things in life. Such as love and divorce, a sense of belonging, wanting to move away, welcoming foreigners … and the differences between the German- and French-speaking Swiss.
‘Your writing thingy, which you call work…’
‘What about it?” I ask.
‘Nothing,’ says Urs. ‘I suppose it must be some kind of work, that what you do. Don’t mind me, I didn’t say anything.’
‘It’s all right, let it be.’
This book was published in 2014 and has not been translated, but several of his earlier books have been translated into English, such as ‘Leon and Louise’, ‘Almost like Spring’ and ‘A Price to Pay’. You can find review of his other books on other blogs, such as Stu Jallen, Lizzy Siddal and Izzy Reads.
Håkan Nesser: The Summer of Kim Novak (transl. Saskia Vogel)
‘It’s going to be a difficult summer’, says Erik’s father at the start of the summer holidays in 1962. He is referring to his wife, Erik’s mother, who is slowly, almost noiselessly slipping away from them with cancer in hospital. But it’s about much more than that, of course, in this heart-breaking account of the coming of age of two 14-year-old boys. They get to spend the summer at the lakeside cottage, together with Erik’s older brother, Henry, former sailor and now freelance journalist, trying to write his first novel. A rural summer made up of small triumphs, everyday pleasures and benign neglect.
It’s a time of learning to cook, of daydreaming about gorgeous women resembling the actress Kim Novak, attending village fairs, reading and raiding the neighbours’ woodpile to build a floating dock. Those long summer days in Sweden, when time seems to stand still, and the adolescents learn about love and lust and violence. It’s not a thriller by any stretch of the imagination, unlike Nesser’s previous work. Instead, it is closely observed, nostalgic without becoming twee, and reveals a stiff upper lip that will resonate with British readers (or other Northern Europeans). Why do I say it’s about midlife crisis? Because it’s the older Erik, now in his forties, who remembers that fateful summer and The Terrible Thing, with all its consequences on his family, friendship and himself.
Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills (transl. Katherine Dovlatov)
You are forewarned from the outset: this is the story of a failing Soviet writer, Boris Alikhanov, sinking into alcoholism, whose wife wants to divorce him and emigrate together with their daughter. In an attempt to patch his life together (or perhaps to get away from it all), he becomes a tour guide on the rural estate of revered national poet Pushkin, now a bustling tourist site. There, he encounters eccentric characters galore, learns how to massage facts and figures to please the tourists, and sinks ever deeper into despondency, indifference and impotent rage. It could be interpreted as the powerlessness and despair of artists having to live under the Soviet system – and not just artists, but the whole population. However, lethargy does not mean lack of feeling, and there is something very poignant about the stylistic restraint of the last few pages of this slim volume.
Every characters seems to have some kind of deadpan humour and are ready to interject philosophically when they are not busy frying their brain cells with drink.
I sat by the door. A waiter with tremendous felted sideburns materialized a minute later.
‘What’s your pleasure?’
‘My pleasure,’ I said, ‘is for everyone to be kind, humble and courteous.’
The waiter, having had his fill of life’s diversity, said nothing.
‘My pleasure is half a glass of vodka, a beer and two sandwiches.’
Boris himself is self-critical, often all too painfully self-aware, but incapable of taking bold steps and either submit to the party line or else become a truly great dissident writer. His wife reproaches him:
Even your love of words – your crazy, unhealthy, pathological love – is fake. It’s nothing more than an attempt to justify the life you lead. And you lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements. With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least…’
‘Do you honestly think he’s a good writer? Perhaps Jack London’s a good writer, too?’
‘Dear God! What does Jack London have to do with this?!…’
You can find a very thoughtful review of this book, complete with a small debate about how to translate colloquialisms, by Guy Savage.
In conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with a little depression, and I enjoyed all of these books. But it always amuses me to see that men’s nervous breakdowns and alcoholic outbursts are associated with great literature, while women’s are treated with disdain and relegated to mere ‘domestic concerns’.
P.S. I’ve just finished a fourth book in the same vein: Pascal Garnier’s ‘Boxes’ and I really think I need a change of decor. Expect some funnier or lighter or just different next reads.
30 thoughts on “Men Being Depressed Again”
I think you’re definitely in need of something a bit lighter now Marina, though I know what you mean about how the two genders are drawn differently when it comes to mental health. Maybe with time and writers passionate about that subject it will change.
I’m off to Samoa now for a crime fiction read Blood Jungle Ballet. It’s not cosy crime, but it will still be a nice change of place and scenery.
Le sexe faible? 😉
I like the sound of My Neigbour Urs – perhaps it will be translated as you mention that a few of his other books have been. It sounds as if a little light summer reading is in order for you now, Marina.
It was rather charming – a bit of self-mockery at the expense of middle-aged, self-absorbed authors.
I have “Pushkin Hills” on my wishlist, but I think I’d better make sure I’m in a strong frame of mind before I read it! 🙂
The author does have a droll, sometimes zany sense of humour, so it’s not all doom and gloom.
What an interesting pattern you’ve found, Marina Sofia! The Nesser actually interests me, mostly because I’m a fan of his Van Veeteren series. That one I might actually try.
It’s nothing like his Van Veeteren series and I did miss the crime element, but it’s undeniably well written and atmospheric.
Pushkin Hills is on my radar, too. Your description of the story reminds me a little of the films of Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan, The Return, The Banishment). Maybe not the deadpan humour, but the culture, the decline into alcoholism and depression…
You’re whipping through the TBR20 – well done!
Reminded me a little of Dostoyevsky too. There are a lot of Russian literary references dotted throughout the book, some of which I got and many of which I didn’t (but there are endnotes).
I’ve got the Hakan Nesser and I’m looking forward to it.
I dipped into the Alex Capus at the book shop but – ah – no, not for me.
Hope enjoy the Nesser – very different from other books of his that I’ve read. I do want to read more Capus at some point, but this is probably not his strongest book.
It’s set too close to where I live to tempt me.
That’s what tempted me (close to where I live, I mean. I often change trains in Olten – he’s got a great riff on the railway station of Olten.)
Well you have had a busy time getting into the male psyche – as you say it’s almost amusing at the way these trials are presented according to gender. I am most interested in Pascal Garnier’s ‘Boxes’ having been persuaded by another blogger that this might be a good one for me!
I love Pascal Garnier, which is why this last one has been slightly disappointing for me. I would recommend starting with ‘How’s the Pain?’, which is my personal favourite of his books translated into English.
Oh thank you – I was a little overwhelmed by the choice but enjoyed a recent review from Guy Savage so put Boxes on the wishlist as a place holder – I will now amend that!
In my observations, male mid life crises appear to be more catastrophic than those of women. This is, of course, a generalization, but I’m basing it on what I’ve witnessed repeatedly.
Just ironic it should be the case, when women are labelled as the more irrational, moody, emotional, mentally unstable etc. etc. But when it comes to meltdown… A case of ‘everything you can do I can do better’?
I think Houellebecq’s books are the most depressing men’s mid-life crisis I’ve read.
I hope you’ll find something funnier to read.
Have avoided him like the pest so far!
Pest & cholera for me… 🙂