Today I was going to read and review a third book by an author I met at Quais du Polar, but I simply ran out of time. The author was Craig Johnson, and the book is one in his popular Longmire series (and features a dinosaur, which made it absolutely irresistible). In 2016, Craig Johnson was also part of what some people called the ‘dream panel’, also including Sara Gran, Arnaldur Indridason, Jo Nesbo and Deon Meyer, as well as a French author who was only just starting out back then, Olivier Norek.
So instead I will link back to some of my favourite write-ups about this event from other years.
I first went to the Quais du Polar in 2013 together with my family. And, while they did the murder mystery treasure hunt all over the city and gorged on the food at the Bocuse brasseries, I instantly fell in love with the festival atmosphere, the beautiful venues, the authors and the bookshops. That first year I was quite restrained in my purchases and spoke mainly to French authors – and to the lovely chronicler of Greek society Petros Markaris. This was also the year that I got to see the wonderful late P.D. James, who was presented with the Medal of Honour of the City of Lyon, I got to interview David Khara and Sylvie Granotier, and I reported on the whole event for Crime Fiction Lover.
2015 was a fantastic year – I met Emma for the first time at Quais du Polar (we then attended it together twice more) and I had my portrait drawn by Max Cabanes. The panels (and perhaps I myself) got more political and my niece, who was studying in Annecy at the time, joined me for the festival, we stayed at a superb little boutique hotel on the Quais, ate at all the boucherons we could find and went to a crime festival ball.
2016 was tinged with sadness, for I knew that I would be leaving France soon and that it might be my last Quais du Polar, so I bought a LOT of books, my biggest haul ever. I got to meet some strong, bubbly, fun-loving women writers that year (and one whose book I did not like – and who seemed to live up to the expectations I had of her after reading her book).
Luckily, although I had returned to the UK by the time Quais du Polar 2017 rolled along, I found that it was still cheaper flying there and staying at a hotel than going to Harrogate. I got to meet Romanian author and publisher Bogdan Hrib there (who has now become my business partner) and heard Bogdan Teodorescu talk about his novel Sword (Spada), which had just been translated into French. I got to watch the first episode of Spiral (Engrenages) Series 6 before its release and see the actors in the flesh (they look much more glamorous in real life). Plus I attended panels on German crime fiction and got to meet and hear Ron Rash (whose novel Serena I will be reading and reviewing shortly).
After five years of faithful attendance, I had to stop going there for financial and other reasons. But I make the firm promise right here and now: next year, by hook or by crook, I’ll be there!
In fact, I should be grateful, because for me it hasn’t been too bad. I am not one of the brave and dedicated frontline key workers that I so much admire and whom we all depend on for what semblance of a normal life we still have: medical staff, pharmacists, supermarket workers, delivery drivers, public transport, utilities providers and of course teachers.
All I had to worry about, for the three weeks until the actual lockdown was my children still going to school (one of them on the train), and me bringing the disease back into the house, with my commute to London and having my office in a very public building which only closed down on the 20th of March. Of course, I also worry about my parents right at the other end of Europe, stuck in the capital city rather than in their house in the countryside (on the other hand, the hospitals are closer and better equipped in Bucharest), both with underlying health conditions and both approaching 80 very soon. Like any recently divorced parent with a very acrimonious financial settlement that is still hugely resented by the ex, I do worry about the possible practical consequences of me falling seriously ill. I may need to get in touch with a solicitor friend of mine and make a will.
Other than that: I’m used to food shortages, to curtailment of liberties, to being essentially under house arrest… it brings back memories of my childhood. Not fond ones, no: I have no ‘stiff upper lip and carry on’ nostalgia. But I know that we survived those times (some less gloriously than others), so I’m hopeful we can survive this. My boys are fortunately old enough to keep themselves occupied whether the school assigns a lot of work or not. We have adopted a new feline member of the family, sweet, elderly Barney, and we are busy trying to get our ‘only child’ Zoe to accept him.
However, my reading and writing have both dwindled considerably. Not only because I am extremely busy with work during the week and feel exhausted all the time. Not only because of the bouts of insomnia which continue to plague me (and probably everybody else at the moment). Almost certainly because I am scrolling helplessly and fruitlessly on my phone for far too long, but also because I find it difficult to concentrate on anything for longer than half an hour. Add to that the fact that WordPress has decided now is the right time to make changes to their writing and formatting of blog posts and a general sense of feeling ‘what’s the point’, and you can understand why I’ve not even updated my blog regularly.
If I look back at March, however, there have been some lovely moments which seem to be as far away now as if we were seeing them through the wrong end of a telescope. On the 1st of March, I was fortunate enough to see the kimono exhibition at the V&A and on the 11th of March the exhibition on the portrayal of pregnancy in art at the Foundling Museum. I also attended an immersive adaptation of The Time Machine on the beautiful premises of the London Library and reviewed the show just a week or so before it shut down. I’d probably have delayed going to see all of these if I hadn’t been jolted by others. Moral of the story: never put off things you enjoy doing because you ‘don’t have time right now’.
The London Book Fair was cancelled, but I had a meeting on the 11th with my fellow Corylus Books founders and we discussed plans for publishing and promoting books this year and the next. It is possibly the worst time to launch a new publishing house and bring out books in translation by authors that nobody has heard of (yet). We also have problems with the actual printing and distribution of physical copies. So, much as I hate having to link to Amazon, this is the only way to find the two books we already have out now. Perhaps later in the year we will be able to attend all those crime festivals and organise all those book launches that we had planned.
Last but not least, I did read eleven books, and most of them have been of the lighter, more escapist variety, with quite a bit of armchair travelling.
Will Dean: Black RiverTuva Moodyson is back in forlorn Gavrik in the north of Sweden at the height of Midsommar madness to try and find her missing friend. With a full cast of dodgy characters, including snakes, the author proves that the Swedish forests can be creepy regardless of the season.
Graeme Macrae Burnet: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau Set in a sleepy provincial town on the Franco-Swiss border, not far from Strasbourg, this too is a creepy tale of loners, outsiders and personal obsessions.
David Young: Stasi 77 A series that I’ve really enjoyed, but somehow missed reading this particular book. The links to the end of the Second World War and hidden Nazis operating within the East German state were particularly harrowing (and historically accurate, although I wasn’t previously aware of it). Perhaps my favourite of the series thus far.
Murder in Midsummer A collection of stories set in holiday locations (not always in summer, despite the title). Mostly famous authors, with lesser known stories. As always with such a collection, some of the stories are better than others, but overall a fun book to dip into.
Rebecca Bradley: A Deeper Song DI Hannah Roberts is back with a bang and a sharp squeal of the brakes. Preoccupied by family problems, she nearly runs over a young man who darts out in front of her car. He is covered in someone else’s blood but cannot tell them anything, as the accident has provoked a temporary (?) amnesia. Soon Hannah herself is in danger and her team need to gather all of their wits and collaborative skills to find her.
Margot Kinberg: A Matter of Motive A start of a new series by American author Margot Kinberg, featuring rookie murder investigator Patricia Stanley. A man is slumped over the steering wheel of his car, apparently the victim of a heart attack. Or was it? Both family and co-workers seem to have plenty of things to hide, although they keep emphasising what a nice guy Ron Clemons was.
Debbie Harry: Face It She does not mince her words, does she? The beautiful, rebellious, cool as anything singer reveals as much as she damn well pleases in this memoir, including her vulnerabilities. Still an icon.
Malorie Blackman: Knife Edge Second book in the Noughts and Crosses series, which I read to coincide with the TV adaptation. Such an interesting concept, although I did find the writing aimed at a younger audience than me.
Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust I was smitten with the original trilogy but only got a chance to read this prequel now. An exciting story, even if we know the final outcome (that baby Lyra did end up safely at Jordan College). Above all, I like the rich descriptive, yet never dull style, which offers something for both adults and younger readers.
Tiffany Tsao: The MajestiesThe story of a rich Indonesian family of Chinese descent, with a mass murder from the outset and a smidgen of science-fiction added into the mix. A wonderful book – about families, the lies we tell each other and tell ourselves, the differences between perceptions of the Chinese in the east and in the west… and about insects.
David Foenkinos: The Mystery of Henri Pick An unexpectedly light and humorous offering by Foenkinos, satirizing the pretentiousness of the Parisian literary society. Could a pizza maker who never was seen reading a book truly have written an almost perfect novel? Erudite, charming, delightful.
Meanwhile, if you find my reading concentration anywhere, do let me know, won’t you? As you can see, I have a whole pile of books planned for April!
It’s easy to get caught up in the panicky bad news cycle, scrolling blindly on Twitter to see if London Book Fair is still on, what the latest spread of the virus is, speak to the phone with worried elderly parents (and be secretly relieved that they’ve decided to cancel their trip to the UK next week, as they would fall into the vulnerable categories), try and plan summer holidays for the boys with an ex who tries to sabotage you every step of the way. More than ever, we need to remind ourselves of all that is good and lovely or even just OK in our lives. So here are five things which gave me joy this last week or so.
Anne Enright in conversation with Andrew O’Hagan about her new book Actress (which has just been longlisted for the Women’s Prize)
I’ve only read a few books by Anne Enright, and haven’t read this one yet (but am eager to, it sounds exactly my sort of thing – tricky mother/daughter relationship, the dangers of celebrity culture, theatre world etc.) The author in person was very funny, very opinionated, not at all shy and does not suffer fools gladly. I think quite a few people would describe her as spiky and remorseless and are slightly afraid of her. At which she rather brilliantly replied: ‘Why are writers described as ruthless? We just sit (and observe) and write.’ Another thing she said also struck me: that England is currently going through that nationalist rhetoric and identity trumpeting that Ireland went through in the past century… and we all know what that led to.
Watching and debating films with my boys (OK, mainly the older boy who is getting very ambitious about his viewing of classic films, but the younger one occasionally participates too) – this weekend it was La Haine (which the older one is studying for A Level French) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which instantly made his top 10 list). The frightening thing about La Haine (made in 1995) is how little things have changed for the banlieue and its inhabitants since then, although the French PM at the time made his entire cabinet watch it. I’d love to see Johnson getting his cabinet to watch a Ken Loach film!
Analysing The Great Gatsby with my older son while working out at the gym. He borrowed it from my bookcase on Friday afternoon, had read it by Saturday evening and, knowing that it’s one of my favourite novels of all time, was keen to discuss it with me while we were puffing away side-by-side on our cross trainers. I have to admit that this comes pretty close to how I thought parenthood might look like ideally before I had children! (It has seldom lived up to that level of expectation.)
Not to neglect the younger son, who also suprised me very pleasantly. Just as I was moaning about him not doing enough reading and that I wish he would read anything, comics, non-fiction, I’m not fussy, as long as he reads rather than just plays computer games all the time etc. etc., the doorbell rang and it was a delivery for him from Amazon (well, we’ll work on the buying from independent bookshops angle later) of a trilogy of books Bakemonogatari (Tales of Monsters) by Japanese author Nisioisin. He’s been busy devouring these ever since and I am tempted to read them myself.
The Kimono Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert – there are no words to describe how happy this made me! I studied Japanese, taught Japanese anthropology, cultural history and literature for a while and have spent several (sadly, far too short) periods in Japan at summer schools etc. I always meant to buy a kimono but could never afford a proper one. I could have spent hours analysing every single pattern, weave, material, detail. I photographed nearly every single one of them and two thirds of the pictures are utter rubbish, but I’ve used some of them, no matter how rubbish, to illustrate this blog post.
Finishing the translation of Sword – I still have to get a third-party edit and proofreading sorted, but I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. This is going to be such an exciting political thriller, unlike any other the English-speaking world has seen so far!
In addition to my Japanese reading extravaganza past and present, I had a very enjoyable month of reading, which almost made up for the fact that this month must have been at least seven weeks long, filled with school evenings, financial and other administrative matters, anxiety on our close about an attempted burglary and other dreary stuff. I read a total of 12 books, 4 for the January in Japan challenge (of which I only reviewed three), 5 which might be labelled crime fiction (or psychological thrillers, although I am starting to dislike the latter label, which has been overused recently), 5 in translation and 5 off my Netgalley list (I am sooo behind with my reviews there).
Other than books, I also had some more pleasant encounters this month than the ones with my mortgage advisor or bank manager. Here’s a quick summary:
Stranger Things Secret Cinema – It’s become a tradition that for my older son’s birthday on the 1st of January my present is an experience rather than an object. It may or may not be precisely on his birthday but it will fall in his birthday month, to make it slightly more bearable. We really liked watching Stranger Things on Netflix together, especially the first series, so this year we went to an immersive Stranger Things experience with some of his friends, dressed up as a rocker (him) and a New Romantic (me), enjoying 80s music, following a trail of clues and scenes from the series with actor look-alikes, all finishing with a sort of summary of the three series on giant screens.
The Irishman and Little Women – My older son has also become quite a film buff and is forever sharing his list of Top 50 films with me (subject to constant revision, of course, because there are so many of the classics he hasn’t seen yet). He liked both of the films above, but we agreed that Goodfellas is better than The Irishman (and shorter). Personally, although I loved the interpretation of Jo, and the beautiful, painterly backdrops and colours of Little Women, I didn’t fall quite as much in love with it as I was expecting.
Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre was a marvellous mix of frustration, seething resentments, luxuriously decaying scenery and excellent actors. Toby Jones was surprisingly good as Vanya (not because he is not a wonderful actor, but because I had a more louche, younger-looking Vanya in mind), while Aimee Lou Wood as Sonya broke my heart a little with her wide-eyed, coltish naivety. Above all, I liked the way the humour and bad behaviour was brought to the forefront, which is not always the case. Most adaptations of Chekhov are unbearably gloomy. Another thing which felt fresh was the prominence given to the doctor’s discourse about the loss of the forest, not just the demise of an old way of life but an actual environmental disaster.
Poetry Class – I trekked over to Chiswick to attend a Coffee House Poetry class with Anne-Marie Fyfe on the topic of homes and houses. Having lived in something like 20-30 houses throughout my life, you can imagine that I have a huge untapped reservoir there for poetic inspiration. The class (first of two, second to follow shortly) was full of talented and supportive people, and we were given challenging but interesting homework until next time. Now all I need to do is actually write… if I can find time for it…. What was the name of my blog again? Nothing’s improved in the past 8 years, then!
Meeting old school friends
At some point during our time there, the English School Vienna became the Vienna International School. For most of us, it was one of the happiest times of our lives, so of course we love meeting up after so long! Three of us girls were The Three Musketeers, while the others were the ‘annoying’ younger sisters or the ‘annoying boy’ who wanted to hang around with us. All very much loved and appreciated now, of course.
Making new blogging friends – I got to go to Uncle Vanya thanks to the lovely Aliki Chapple, whom I’d been chatting with occasionally on Twitter, so it was a great pleasure to meet her in real life. We share some common Greek experiences, as well as a passion for theatre (although in her case it is far more professional than mine). I also got to meet an old Twitter acquaintance Amateur Reader Tom, who was visiting London with his wife, an academic interested in both French and German history and literature. I introduced them to my favourite Greek restaurant near work and we chatted about France, Britain and the Quais du Polar (Tom lived in Lyon for a while). In future, I should make all my friends via Twitter or blogging, because after a few years of exchanging ideas about books, films and cultural events, you have so much more in common than you do with people you encounter randomly as neighbours or parents at school.
One other thing that has taken up virtually all of my ‘spare’ time this month, which has been as urgent as my admin (but nothing like as dreary) has been translation work. But more about that in a short while! Lots of exciting news coming up in this respect!
Plans for next month? What country should I ‘attack’ next? Since I am so busy translating myself, I actually want to read things written in English (because I seem to have forgotten all the slang and natural sounding expressions in English while translating), so I think I will opt for some English, Scottish, Irish and perhaps American memoirs and essays. I’ve already started with Deborah Orr’s Motherwell, while Janice Galloway, Kathleen Jamie, Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers and Maggie Gee have been waiting far too long on my shelves.
I’ll have a separate blog post for my favourite books or cultural events of the decade, but first for something rather personal. It’s been a long, hard old decade for me. I started off with a moribund marriage but tried desperately to keep it alive for another 4 years or so. Then to hide its disintegration from the children for two more years. Then another 3.5 years to finally untangle property and finances. So you can imagine I will not be looking back fondly upon this decade. However, there have been good moments, mostly relating to the five years we spent in my beloved Geneva area.
So I’ll start with my favourite posts from the blog I started in Geneva in February 2012. Not quite 10 years old, but boy, has it accumulated a lot of material! Expect a mammoth post:
Before I started this blog, I had a professional blog for my business as a coach and trainer for all matters intercultural. Some of the posts were quite business-like, but some wittered on about expat experiences and my family. Here are a few posts that bring back fond memories:
November has not been the best month for a happy reading frame of mind. Budgets and hassles and events to put on at work. French exchange student to host and ferry around. Court case stress, a settlement that leaves me teetering on the edge of poverty and a growing realisation that a financial settlement does not mean an end to bullying by the ex. So I might be excused for finishing just five books this month, of which only one was a #GermanLitMonth (or Germans in November) read, and abandoning a couple of others.
I needed a change from my usual rather dark reading fare and escaped in the pages of two ‘feel-good’ reads: The Star of Lancaster from Jean Plaidy’s series on the Plantagenets (featuring mostly Henry IV and V) and the sly irony of The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha (review to follow imminently).
The remaining two books were by the same author; I read them with a professional editorial eye, to see which might be most suitable for translating and publishing in the UK and the US. Two very different books by the talented and versatile author Bogdan Teodorescu: a domestic noir entitled Liberty and a political thriller about the sudden death of an investigative journalist Nearly Good Lads (English titles to be confirmed).
There was one further literary event this month, which filled me with a rosy glow of contentment for at least a few days, namely the charity Write-A-Thon in Windsor, which allowed me to spend a whole day reminding myself just why I love writing so much, in the company of other passionate writers.
Finally, in the last two days of the month, I managed to squeeze in two plays. Stray Dogs at the Park Theatre is a drama about the choices faced by Anna Akhmatova during Stalinist times – will she collaborate with the ruthless autocrat in order to save her son? Sadly, Akhmatova’s son never forgave her, believing that she cared more about her poetry than for him and that she had not worked hard enough for his release.
The second play is another not so cheery but reliable stalwart from my Viennese life: Tales from the Vienna Woods by Horvath, performed by this year’s final year students at RADA. The jaunty background music and farcical moments contrast with the rather stark messages around women trying to survive in a patriarchal, Catholic world.
What a wonderful day we had! Nine members of our Royal Borough Writers group committed to a full day of writing in the attic room at The Old Court in Windsor, all while raising money for the mental health charity Mind.
No conflicting commitments, no distractions, just setting goals for the morning and the afternoon, receiving stickers if we achieved those goals (we all did) and 50 minute writing spurts followed by a 10 minute break to replenish your drinks at the bar downstairs. We kept that up from 10:30 until 18:30 and it was the happiest I’ve been in many, many months.
While I cannot claim quite as many words as some of the other members of the group (6500 in one case, 10 pages of film script, 3 short stories etc.), I did manage to write about 2500 words, edit several poems and completely rewrite one as a ballad. Our total tally was probably over 25,000 words and a total of nearly £800 raised, so something to be proud of.
Thank you so much to all of you who donated so generously to us in cash and via the JustGiving page! In addition to raising funds for Mind, you also reminded me of just how much I love writing. A great way to kickstart my passion for it once more, and a handy reminder that I should stop putting it last, after I do all the tedious urgent chores.
Really struggling to find enough things to be positive about this past week, which has been marred by headaches and insomnia. But as long as I have books, plays and music, it cannot be all bad, right?
I tidied up my bedside tables and bookshelves, as the new purchases were interfering with my geographical shelving.
2. I donated a massive bag full of books to the local library, but I also bought books this week, so my balance is probably zero.
3. Speaking of mother/son relationships, I watched yet another emotionally gruelling play Mother of Him by Evan Placey at the Park Theatre. A play to make the audience think, laugh, cry and gasp out loud! It’s about a family (and especially the mother, who is being judged by everyone) going to pieces when the older son is accused of raping three girls in one night. It should come with a flashing red warning for single mothers of teenage boys – especially when the actor who plays the 17 year old son has the skinny body type of my own 16 year old!
4. ROH Live Encore at my local culture centre: Mozart’s Don Giovanni. One of my favourite operas, can never get enough of it and have watched many a wacky production. This beautiful Jack Furness revival of the Kasper Holten production featured a charismatic Erwin Schrott in the title role, a Don Ottavio I could finally empathise with (Daniel Behle) and an amazing if rather discombobulating set with video projections. It hasn’t quite dethroned my current favourite version: this ‘hipster edition’ live recording from the Festival international d’Art lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence in July 2017.
5. Sadly, I didn’t make it to this month’s writing group meeting, but I’ll be taking part in the Charity Write-a-thon we are organising in Windsor on the 16th of November. All the money we raise will go to Mind. If you do feel inspired to sponsor me, please visit my fundraising page here.
Despite having a houseful of children for most of this past week, I have been able to partake in some cultural events as well, both inside and outside the house.
Pain and Glory – Almodovar’s latest film shows the master has mellowed in middle age. The story of a lonely middle-aged film director struggling with lost creativity and ill health is not new, but Antonio Banderas turns in a beautifully nuanced, subtle performance. The flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood are rich in colour and emotion, but what stayed with me most is how we select and package our memories to attempt a coherent narration of our lives… and yet the truth is always more complex than that.
Marriage Story – Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are believably flawed yet appealing as a couple struggling through divorce. It was a little too close to the battlegrounds I am currently experiencing myself, so I’m afraid I embarrassed myself with tears. Filmed in a minimalist way, with close-ups of the actors’ faces engaged in monologues or dialogues, this had the feeling of an indie, mumblecore type of film. There was one particular scene I found all too familiar: where the attempt at having a conversation away from the lawyers descends into a screaming match, with all of the long-hidden resentments and accusations bursting out like an overflowing dam.
Lara – ice-cold in Berlin*. Another carefully observed film, full of significant details, but one where nearly all emotion has been drained. Lara is a domineering mother whose dreams of becoming a concert pianist were dashed in her youth and now feels proud yet nervous about her pianist son’s major concert, which takes place on her 60th birthday. We never see the drama of what led to the estrangement between mother and son, but there are hints of bad behaviour and nervous breakdown. Emotions are very tightly held in check for the most part, yet there are unexpectedly candid (if frosty) conversations between Lara and the people she encounters on her birthday.
*As a child, I firmly believed that ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ was a film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz
Since I had a few hours to kill between the two films at the London Film Festival on Friday, I meandered down Charing Cross Road, mourned the loss of so many second-hand bookshops (when I first came to London, I remember it used to take my hours to go down that road, there were so many bookshops, now turned into cafes or clothes shops – boo!). Nevertheless, I did stop at the few remaining bookshops, at Foyles, then at Second Shelf (again!) and at Waterstones Piccadilly and emerged with the pile below.
However, I’d also been busy ordering some books online, especially while sitting around waiting for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be announced. I ordered a couple of Russians, especially since I thought Ludmila Ulitskaya might be a contender…
And two Orenda books arrived on cue for my #Orentober reading. I’ve already devoured Little Siberia, which is less slapstick than Tuomainen’s last two books (I absolutely loved the black comedy, don’t get me wrong!) but not quite as bleak as his earlier books. I think it would be fair to say that the set-up is ridiculous and richly comic: a suicidal racing car driver has a meteorite drop into his passenger seat. A pastor with experience of fighting in Afghanistan is guarding the local museum where nearly everyone wants to steal the precious piece of rock. He gets plenty of opportunity to question his own faith and choices in life, as well as being exposed to the venality and self-serving excuses of others.
Last but not least, I’ve also watched some TV. Helen Mirren is commanding yet deliciously vulnerable as Catherine the Great (and, although she is almost certainly too old for the part, I cannot help but rejoice that an older woman is shown as both powerful and intransigent, yet also having sexual fun on our screens). And, of course, I’m excited to see the new series of Engrenages (Spiral), the first in a long while without Anne Landois as show runner.
And bookish friends are the best friends… I had a rather lovely week filled with books and literary discussions, just what the doctor ordered: the perfect nourishment to keep my soul from unravelling.
On Tuesday I had another Skype session with my poetry mentor and it is amazing how excited I get about rewriting some poems that I’d set aside because I felt I’d revised them so much that I was sick of them. It took another poet to read them and ask me what I was trying to achieve to actually regain some of that original spark that gave birth to the poem.
On Thursday I attended the book launch of The Trap, two novellas by Romanian Jewish author Ludovic Bruckstein, translated by Alastair Ian Blythe. The author’s son, who has been the driving force behind the publication of his father’s literary estate, was there and gave us a very moving account of his father’s life.
Not many people born in that part of Europe can summarise their lives in simple terms. Their choices have been horribly affected by external events.
Ludovic grew up in Sighet in North Maramures, just across the street from where Elie Wiesel used to live, but during the Second World War this thriving Jewish community was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Ludovic discovered he was almost the sole survivor when he returned home after the war. For a while it seemed like he was going to be active and successful in the post-war writing community, with plays written in both Yiddish and Romanian, but he preferred a quieter life in the north of the country rather than becoming an establishment figure in Bucharest. Of course, he was duly expunged from Romanian literary history when he emigrated to Israel in 1972. But the poignant thing is he continued to write in Romanian for the Romanian community in Israel (most of his work was translated into Hebrew as well). I gave my copy of the book to my friend from Geneva days who came to visit me this weekend, and have promptly bought another one for myself. The brief reading we had from the book was absolutely brilliant and the stories really are a stark warning that passivity and political apathy often lead to the same consequences as deliberate malice.
On Friday my friend from Geneva came over to find me after work and we did non-stop literary things all weekend. First, we visited the Writing in Times of Conflict exhibition at Senate House and I discovered that my friend Jenny (a trained actress) had actually played Anne’s mother in a theatrical adaptation of the diaries, and toured with it around Europe.
We then went to the LRB Bookshop to see Kathleen Jamie in conversation with Philip Hoare, talking about her latest collection of essays entitled Surfacing. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a poetry masterclass with Kathleen and have always admired her sincerity and lack of pretension. She told us how she needed to write something to fill in those fallow periods in-between moments of poetic inspiration and for some reason she thought that essays would be easier and more lucrative than poetry (‘and boy, was I ever wrong!’). She also talked about her process, how she never starts out with a theme she can research, but just lets things accrue until she finally detects a pattern right at the end.
What I really appreciate about her writing is that she bears witness to a disappearing world, muses about the connections between past and present (and future) but refuses to romanticise the past or even nature. She doesn’t consider herself a pure nature writer, because it is the collision between humans and nature that she finds most interesting. Furthermore, because she is not as bound by science as archaelogists are, she can use her imagination much more freely to speculate about the lives and emotions of the people whose objects they are unearthing.
We spent a lazy Saturday in Oxford, talking non-stop about writing and reading, having pie and mash in the Covered Market, but unable to visit any of the colleges because of the graduation ceremonies taking place in the Sheldonian. Except Keble College, where I was overjoyed to see a quince tree against the ornate Victorian Gothic background. In the evening, we watched the rather depressing Marianne and Leonard documentary about Leonard Cohen’s Norwegian muse and their life together on the island of Hydra and wondered about the excuses and sacrifices we make for men who are considered geniuses (and not just them).
On Sunday we went to Henley Literary Festival and, although the weather prevented us from taking full advantage of riverside walks, we enjoyed seeing three indomitable women writers talk about why they find family dynamics so fascinating. The writers were:
Harriet Evans, whose inspiration for her latest novel The Garden of Lost and Found came via a strong visual flash of children running down to the bottom of the garden when she heard someone sing the old song ‘The Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’
Hannah Beckerman, who said she wrote 24 drafts for her novel If Only I Could Tell You, because the characters usually come to her to lie down on a therapy couch and gradually reveal their stories
Janet Ellis, whose second novel How It Was I have on my Kindle but haven’t read yet, said she gets her inspiration when a voice starts plucking at her sleeve and demanding to be heard.
There was a great deal of warmth and humour in their interaction, they were almost interviewing each other, or rather, having a delightful literary conversation that we were allowed to witness. One thing that they said really stuck with me: how we assume that older women just fade and vanish from public life or literature, but maybe some of that is by choice. That it is such a relief not to be at the cutting edge anymore, constantly scrutinised, judged by appearance or have every choice analysed. And also what satisfaction it is to have survived things that if anyone had told us in our youth that we would have to endure, we would probably not have believed ourselves capable of enduring.
I was planning not to buy any more books (I’d received quite a few in the post), not even if I could get them signed by the authors – although I was intrigued by the three of them and will certainly borrow their books from the library. But then Jenny took me into the Oxfam bookshop… and, in short, here is the week’s book haul. Alas.