New Year, Final Book Haul

Since I’ll be practically selling my kidneys (and almost certainly my parents’ old age security) in order to buy out the ex’s share of the house, I have to be very, very careful with money for the foreseeable future. So no more book buying for me this year – and this time I mean it!

However, before this frugality kicked in, I had a final splurge of French and Swiss books which I might struggle to find back in the UK, plus some that had been preordered in November or so, but got delayed in the Christmas frenzy post.

The French contingent

I finally bought myself a copy of Montaigne – not one translated into contemporary French but a ‘rejuvenated and refreshed’ edition, based on the 1595 version. I bought an abridged version of The Three Musketeers, in the hope that my younger son would fall for its charm. I got two Goncourt winners (smaller Goncourt prizes – for debut and the one given by high school students, which is often far better than the main one) and wanted to get the 2018 Goncourt winner that Emma rated so highly Les Enfants aupres eux – but they’d sold out and were waiting for the poche edition to appear some time in 2020. Last, but not least, I couldn’t resist this fictionalised biography of Tsvetaeva at a second-hand bookshop. The bookseller said I was the first person there who seemed to have heard of Marina Tsvetaeva, so we had a good long chat about her, how she is my favourite poet, but my Russian friend prefers Akhmatova.

The Swiss contingent

My good friend Michelle Bailat-Jones, whose translation of Ramuz so impressed me, was delighted to take me to a bookshop in Lausanne and recommend some more Ramuz and other Swiss writers. I ended up with Fear in the Mountains and with this trilogy by Agota Kristof, a Hungarian writer who taught herself to write in French. This trilogy has inspired other writers, a film (The Notebook) and even a video game, believe it or not!

Books arriving while I was away

Sadly, Michelle’s second novel Unfurled, which I’d wanted her to sign for me, arrived long after I’d left for Geneva. I had also ordered an Olga Tokarczuk which Tony Malone reminded me had been translated into English: Primeval and Other Times. I’ve been collecting quite a few books about the difficulties of writing and the importance of perseverance lately – Dani Shapiro’s one comes highly recommended. Last but not least, following the death of Alasdair Gray, whom I’ve never read, I wanted to sample some of his writing,but was not sure I could commit to a full novel, so chose these stories instead.

Japanese Literature Challenge

Finally, I have selected a few contenders for the January in Japan challenge. Heaven’s Wind is a dual language anthology of 5 women writers (each represented by one short story, all translated by Angus Turvill) and makes me feel like I almost remember enough Japanese to read it in the original. The translation notes at the back, though, make it clear just how little I am able to grasp the nuances nowadays. Another shortish story about insomnia by Yoshida Kyoko, Spring Sleepers, in that rather lovely publishing initiative by the Keshiki UEA Publishing Project. Then I have Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), one of the most beautiful collection of supernatural stories in Japanese literature dating from the 18th century, which has inspired many, many later books and films. A classic of Japanese crime fiction and the author with the highest profile currently in Japanese literature consumed in the West make up the rest of my small selection. Now all I have to do is keep up with the reviewing!

Like a painting, Mont Blanc from the train window.

The holidays were nice, and reminded me once more just how much I miss that particular part of the world. They had the potential to be truly spectacular holidays, but alas, not quite! Sadly, you cannot escape all your problems or the nuisance people in your life, even at times of peace and joy to all humankind, even at a distance of a thousand miles. Stroppy teenagers changing their minds about things at the last minute and bringing plague-like flu symptoms with them meant that there was far less writing, skiing, fondue and chocolate eating, wine drinking, snowshoeing, meeting of friends than I’d planned. I am nevertheless incredibly grateful to my friend Jenny for allowing us to use her flat and partake in her impeccable literary tastes.

Best of the Year Books (New Discoveries and Open Category)

Many of the authors I discovered this year are not really new authors at all, simply new to me. You all have been raving about some of them for years!

Of course, I can’t bear to part with any of them…

New discoveries:

Olga Grushin: Dream Life of Sukhanov – freedom and the artist, censorship and compromise, all in a satirical and surrealist tale of midlife crisis

Cora Sandel: Alberta Alone, transl. Elizabeth Rokkan – so daring and modern, very relatable and touching

Fernanda Torres: The End, transl. Alison Entrekin – my favourite combination of humour, satire and sadness – what the Germans call ‘zartbitter’ (tender bitter)

Kent Haruf: Plainsong – all those bloggers who recommended him: you were right! I’m not normally a fan of small-town America, but there is something deliciously plaintive but also muscular and lean about his style, reminded me of Sam Shephard’s Cruising Paradise

Livia Braniste: Interior zero – the Romanian millenial Bridget Jones is by turns funny, cynical and much more subtle than her British counterpart

David Vann: Aquarium – hard-done-by children and their stories always grip me, and this one is beautifully written and heartbreaking

Gerhard Jäger: All die Nacht über uns – this clever blend of personal and social history is just my cup of tea it will probably go straight onto my best of the decade list.

Open category:

Anything goes here really – writers I’m already familiar with, poetry (which I read a lot but very seldom review), things that defy all categorisation etc.

Julia Franck: Die Mittagsfrau – started slowly and then just grew and grew on me

Ilya Kaminsky: Deaf Republic – political narrative poetry at its most lyrical, metaphorical and troubling

Shirley Jackson: Raising Demons – sweetness wrapped in bitter chocolate – or should that be bitterness wrapped in milk chocolate?

Isaac Babel: Odessa Stories, transl. Boris Dralyuk – virtuoso storytelling, comedy and tragedy in equal measure

Best of the Year Books (Classics and Non-Fiction)

Perhaps it says something that many of my most memorable classics were read as part of my ‘geographical exploration’ challenges: either the #EU27Project or the One Country per Month option. The non-fiction books appeared as additional reading for many of my fictional interests this past year, although Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living was recommended by somebody on Twitter.

Two of the books (Montaigne and Travellers in the Third Reich) were library loans, but the rest are here.

Classics:

Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, transl. Michelle Bailat-Jones – reads like a long prose-poem, with all the looming menace of a devastating storm about to break out

Strugatsky Brothers – started off with the story Monday Starts on Saturday, transl. Andrew Bromfield, dripping with sarcasm and surrealism, then the book Roadside Picnic, transl. Olena Bormashenko, which formed the basis for that strange Tarkovsky film Stalker

Miklos Banffy, transl. Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen – I started the first in the Transylvanian trilogy back in 2018 and then couldn’t wait to get back to that lost world, recreated with all its magic but also its flaws

Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years – memorable fictionalised account of living as a Jew in Romania in the period between the two world wars

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution – a book of stories with several translators; the title story a particular standout tale of love, politics, self-interest and betrayal

Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Persephone and a truly heartbreaking story of a dying marriage

Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare – highly recommended by everyone who had read it. I thought that this additional story of betrayal and loss in a marriage would kill me off completely, but it was exquisitely written, so well observed

Non-Fiction:

Sarah Bakewell: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer – really made Montaigne come to life for me and ignited my interest in his essays and philosophy

Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living – rediscovering your self and your creativity after marital breakdown, the right book at the right time

Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich – wonderful collection of contemporary narratives from those travelling in the Weimar Republic and early years of Nazi power, demonstrating how easy it is to believe in propaganda

Mihail Sebastian: Journal – even more heartbreaking than his novel, his diary describes life just before and during WW2 in Bucharest, and the compromises and excuses his friends make in order to survive

Rupert Christiansen: Paris Babylon – very readable account of the lead-up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, in which the city of Paris becomes a main character in all its infuriating, incomprehensible beauty and chaos

Norwegian Proto-Feminist Cora Sandel

Born Sara Cecilia Görvell Fabricius in 1880 in Oslo (and therefore an almost exact contemporary of Virginia Woolf’s) and growing up in Tromso, Cora Sandel was a painter turned writer who lived in Paris for fifteen years before and after the First World War, then moved to Sweden with her Swedish sculptor husband, whom she divorced a short while later. Her Alberta trilogy is inspired by her own life among the artist community, and her own struggles to make her voice heard (and use her creativity) in a society where women were still very much marginalised. She gave up painting after she had her son, although she deeply regretted it, and wrote her first book at the age of 46.

I should have started with the first book in the series Alberta and Jacob, which describes Alberta’s youthful struggles as a shy but creative girl in a very confined small-town society. Jacob is her brother, who becomes a sailor and finally emigrates to Australia. In the second book Alberta and Freedom, she has been succesful in her rebellion and moved to Paris, but struggles to make ends meet, to write (in the book, she has no talent as a painter herself) and falls prey to all sorts of predatory men. However, I started with the third volume, Alberta Alone, because the blurb on the back says that this is an accurate depiction of the corrosion of a relationship against the background of the aftermath of the war, and how a woman tries to reconcile her responsibilities as a mother with her creative needs.

And I’m glad I did, because it is probably the most obviously feminist of the three books. Alberta is still somewhat insecure, but she is starting to find her voice, to stop being a doormat, to fight for herself and for her son. She falls somewhat in love with a married French author: she is spending the summer at the seaside with him and his family. However, this is mainly because he seems to be the only one who understands her creative urges and encourages her to take her writing seriously. Her womanising painter husband is insufferable, tries to take her child away from her because he believes she mollycoddles him, compares her unfavourably with other women, and for most of the book she has given up trying to contradict him or tell him anything. Mostly, this book reflects the interior journey of a woman from dependence and fear to independence and pursuing a goal.

Although it was published in 1939 (the first two volumes were published in 1926 and 1931 respectively), the book contains such accurate and contemporary insights and observations both about the feminine condition and about being a writer (unsure of her own talent and lacking the support of her family), that it could have been written today.

[Alberta’s writing]…it amounted to pile in a folder. It had grown in slow stages and as far as possible in secrecy. But suddenly, when she had begun to believe that she had achieved a certain amount of order and coherence, new material had presented itself, at times in such quantities that she became sickened and felt that she could not face it… The task threatened to be endless and the old glint had returned to Sivert’s eye a long time ago when he asked after it. Or he might say: ‘Have you done any scribbling today?’ And then she felt as if he had handled her roughly, and she did not know which she detested most, herself or Sivert [her husband], or the pile of papers.

Alberta is a great procrastinator and self-flagellator when it comes to her writing and probably reflects the author’s own disdain for dilettantism. She can be equally scathing about motherhood and children, although Alberta is clearly very much concerned about the welfare of her rather sickly son.

Neither Pierre nor any other man possessed that endless patience, that faculty of being able to hang about with [children] hour after hour, of answering precisely and good-naturedly the countless questions they use to hold you fast. And those women who really do possess it are usually elderly or a little simple-minded.

But right after she gives birth, when she holds her baby in her arms, she feels:

There existed nothing more helpless or more dependent on human good-will… Her first coherent reflection had been: Now I am truly vulnerable. Now I can be hurt as never before.

The work is filled with so many precise observations, in almost throwaway lines, that I could easily quote them one after another.

It struck Alberta how stooping most women’s work is. Man stretches: he rows, or reaches out for stones or planks. He is often bent beneath burdens, but woman bends over almost all her tasks, except when she hangs up washing.

Certain moments were almost too painful to read: they resonated a little bit too much with me. Sandel is almost recklessly candid, there is no sugarcoating or attempt at political correctness in Alberta’s inner monologue.

The boy suddenly seemed to resemble Sivert in a way that was almost horrible: Sivert’s ability to dash cold water over one’s enthusiasm and extinguish it effectively and at once. It was not right that a child should be so like an adult… She put the things down to take him in her arms, but did not do so. One can be reserved in one’s love for a child, just as in other relationships.

When Sivert tells her he has fallen in love with someone else and promptly follows that declaration with a lecture on how it is in fact her fault, Alberta finally speaks up – and not only in her head.

He gave a brief lecure on woman as mother and mistress; she was either the one or the other, seldom both. Then there were those who were neither the one nor the other. Exhaustion drifted through her brain as black patches… thoughts for which she failed to find the words immediately: something to the effect that we are not divided into categories, we would like nothing better than to be both, but it takes strength and the right conditions. Not even a plant will develop all its qualities in any kind of soil…

Then he said something that left her wide awake. ‘You said, I love you, first.’

‘Did I? It must have been at some moment-? It must have been in your arms?’ Alberta searched her memory confusedly…

‘You did. And it’s a mistake. It’s the man who should say that sort of thing first.’

Suddenly Alberta did not know whether to laugh or cry. ‘You – you ninny!’ It was a word that Sivert had taught her. At home they said booby.

The fiercely individualistic Cora Sandel did not want to become known beyond her pseudonym, nor did she want to be part of the feminist movement. Her work was revered in Norway, and adapted for film, but she was only translated into English by Elizabeth Rokkan in the 1960s but somehow failed to make a lasting impact.

I happened to come across some old Peter Owen editions for sale outside the Waterstones in Gower Street. I’ve been so blown away by her work that I will not only read the other books in the trilogy but have also ordered her only other book translated into English The Leech (about which I know nothing other than the title). She reminds me in a way of Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen, who perhaps has more humour in her memoirs, but is equally honest and unafraid in her writing. I would love to see a resurgence of interest in Cora Sandel’s work, further translations of her work and a reissue of her novels.

Best of the Year Books (Crime and Current Releases)

From now on, I will ignore both annoying politicians and ex-husbands, and focus only on books. I still have a few books to review, but I’m also starting my annual round-up. Perhaps I’ll even get around to a decade’s round-up.

I’ve found a very clever way around the limitations of the ‘Top Ten Books of the Year’ list. I will compile my choices by categories. In this first instalment, I’m featuring my favourite crime fiction books and the 2019 releases (never mind that these two lists might overlap, I will ignore that).

Second instalment will contain Non-Fiction and Classics, while the final one will be about new discoveries or new books by authors I already admire. And, since I’m an optimist about still finding memorable books in the 20 days still left of 2019, I will leave the last instalment open for late additions and only publish it on the very last day of the year.

The ones I own; the others were library loans. And Ghost Wall is at a friend’s house currently.

Crime Fiction:

Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – if I say social critique and suicide cults, it will sound incredibly depressing, but this is a very unusual and highly readable mystery

Antti Tuomainen: Little Siberia – action-packed noir with a philosophical slant and surreal, even slapstick humour, this is a story about losing your faith and what it might take to regain it

Doug Johnstone: Breakers – heartbreaking, yet avoids sentimentality, this story of brotherly love and deprived childhoods

Helen Fitzgerald: Worst Case Scenario – at once a condemnation of the stretched resources within our probation services, as well as a menopausal woman’s roar of rebellion

G.D. Abson: Motherland – a fresh and timely setting for this first book in a crime series set in Putin’s Russia

Bogdan Teodorescu: Baieti aproape buni – sharp, scathing critique of political corruption and media cover-up

New Releases:

I notice that all of the below are rather dark, although they also ooze humour (maybe that’s just me and my love of black comedy)

Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall – misplaced nostalgia for a more heroic past and a domestic tyrant you will love to hate

Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign – an ill-fated house viewing, where everyone seems to shed their multiple masks and either reveal or question their identity

Robert Menasse: The Capital – the almost surreal absurdity of a pan-European organisation and the people within it, a satirical yet also compassionate portrait of contemporary Europe and Brussels

Guy Gunaratne: In Our Mad and Furious City – an angry tribute to a city that devours its children

Anna Burns: Milkman – technically, published in 2018 but became more widely available in 2019 – such an evocative look at the claustrophobia of living in a divided, small-town society

#6Degrees of Separation: From Sanditon…

Time for one of my favourite monthly memes: Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. You start with the book suggested by Kate and create a chain of six books linked by whatever means to the one before. I couldn’t resist a Jane Austen book and her last, unfinished novel Sanditon is our starting point this month.

Most of the covers of Sanditon are abysmal, so I chose this more or less contemporary illustration.

Sadly, there’s not much left of Sanditon, but given that Austen’s previous novel Persuasion is my favourite, and shows signs of a maturing, ever more sensitive and subtle writer, it could potentially have been a satirical masterpiece. The recent TV series based on it was most definitely not!

Another novel that had a very disappointing TV adaptation recently was H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. I gave up about half-way through, as they managed to make Wells’ exciting story as dull as ditchwater. Quite unlike the infamous radio adaptation of it by Orson Welles in 1938, which is supposed to have started a mass panic in New York City. (Turns out, this is a bit of a myth.)

A book about a real mass hysteria phenomenon is Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 by John Waller. In the summer of 1518 hundreds of men and women started dancing compulsively in the city of Strasbourg, until they died of heat stroke and exhaustion. Waller tries to find an explanation for this random and crazy phenomenon, but there is a distinct lack of real historical sources, so it will leave readers somewhat disappointed.

Speaking of mass hysteria and quasi-religious movements, how can I not mention the Jonestown massacre? I’ve read a lot about it in the course of my own studies of cults, but there’s a debut novel out entitled Beautiful Revolutionary by Australian author Laura Elizabeth Woollett that has caught my eye. Based upon interviews with the survivors of the 1978 mass ‘suicide’ in the Guyana jungle, the fictionalised account suggests (perhaps somewhat naively) that the victims of Jim Jones were also a victim of the times and society they lived in.

My next book shares ‘revolutionary’ in the title and perhaps also the feeling of discontent with society, but is very different. One of my all-time favourite novels, although I found it very difficult to read at the time (for personal reasons): Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

Another woeful story about marital breakdown is German author’s Jakob Wassermann’s My Marriage (translated by Michael Hofmann), published posthumously and based on the author’s own unhappy marriage in Vienna.

My final link is another posthumous book – and probably just as well that it was posthumous, as it would probably have led to the death of the author in any case. The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov is one of my favourite books of all time (I’ve even done a special Friday Fun edition of its cover art): surreal, impossible to describe, infuriating and very, very funny. It’s about the madness of trying to make sense of an absurd world. And it comes back full circle to the equally posthumous Sanditon

My Most-Owned Authors Book Tag

Susana at A Bag Full of Stories always prods me to join some fun blog posts about my reading habits. When I read her Favourite Books by Most-Owned Authors blog post, I was inspired to examine my own bookshelves. Some of the results might surprise you, they certainly surprised me!

But first: what constitutes a lot? I have very many authors with 3-4 books on my bookshelf. In some cases they died too soon (Sylvia Plath) or they haven’t written more (yet – I’m waiting impatiently, Eva Dolan). In other cases, the rest of their works might still be at my parents’ house (Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, Colette, Rilke, Liviu Rebreanu and Arthur Schnitzler take a bow!).

If endless editions of the same book count, then Murasaki Shikibu is also abundant on my bookshelf, with 5 different translations of Genji Monogatari, as is Cavafy with several editions (some electronic) of his poems in translation, including a bilingual one in Greek and English.

So here are the remaining authors who are present with five or more books on my current bookshelves (some of them in e-book form but only where I couldn’t easily access physical volumes).

Old Favourites I Cannot Live Without

Virginia Woolf – When it comes to Virginia, I am a bit of a completist, so although some of her books are still in my parents’s house, I nevertheless have her complete diaries, some of my favourite novels and quite a few of her essays on my bedside table.

Franz Kafka – the plain white Fischer Verlag editions of all of Kafka’s novels, stories, letters and diaries which I bought when I was 13-14 have accompanied me wherever I lived in the world ever since.

Tove Jansson – As with Virginia, I am a completist when it comes to Tove and my latest purchase is a volume of her letters. If I include her biography and all the Moomin cartoons (collected editions) as well as the Moomin books which are currently on my sons’ bookshelves, she is probably the most omnipresent author in my house.

Jane Austen – All her novels, including her juvenilia and the unfinished ones, plus her collected letters

Jean Rhys – not quite as complete as she deserves – four of her novels, a collection of short stories, her autobiography, her letters and a biography by Lilian Pizzichini.

Murakami Haruki – well, he reminds me of my student days. I prefer his earlier work and have pretty much stopped reading him since Kafka on the Shore (although, admittedly, I did fall for the Killing Commendatore hype and pre-ordered it).

Marin Preda – one of the most famous Romanian writers of the post-war period, he became a bit of a national hero when he published his last novel The Most Beloved Human. It was almost instantly withdrawn from sale, when readers interpreted it as a virulent critique against the communist regime. A few weeks later, he died under mysterious circumstances – some say possibly related to this book. I have it in three volumes, but also other novels, including the one we all had to read in school, about the destruction of village life before, during and after WW2, Morometii. I’d kind of forgotten he was so prominent on my bookshelf though…

Serendipitous Purchases

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö – the whole Martin Beck series, so ten books – bought as a job lot on Book People for a very low price, one of the best purchases I ever made. I absolutely devoured the whole lot in about 1 month and return periodically to them. The parents of the whole Nordic noir genre.

Muriel Spark – Another job lot from the Book People, which includes many of my favourites (Loitering with Intent, A Far Cry from Kensington, Girls of Slender Means). However, it doesn’t have some of her more challenging works (The Mandelbaum Gate or The Abbess of Crewe). So I may have to invest at some point in buying some more (although I’ve borrowed most of them over the course of the years from the library).

More Recent Discoveries

Below are all authors that I’ve discovered in the past 6-7 years (in some cases, even more recently) and have taken into my heart – or at least could not resist buying more of them.

Pascal Garnier – It all started with a request in 2012 to review one of his first books to be translated into English (by Emily Boyce and published by Gallic Books) for Crime Fiction Lover. This was the book How’s the Pain? and I was smitten. I have since reviewed pretty much all of the books that have been translated, as well as hunted him down in French libraries and second-hand bookshops. I even am the proud owner of a book signed by him to a certain Marie Louise (I think Marina Sofia is close enough, don’t you?)

Kathleen Jamie – initially I bought and read her poetry books, because she was doing a poetry masterclass with us back in my Geneva Writers’ Group days, but I soon fell in love with her insightful essays and strong sense of place as well.

Sarah Moss – I’d read a shopping list written by Sarah Moss: I admire the way her mind works. I either own or have borrowed all of her books, but my favourite book might not be the one most people like – it’s Night Waking, because it captures so well the challenges of being a mother and scholar.

Javier Marias – I read A Heart So White in 2016 and was so impressed that I hastily bought several more of his books, including the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow but I haven’t actually gotten around to reading any of them.

Antti Tuomainen – an author I discovered a few books in, once he got published by Orenda, but I’ve bought his (much grimmer) back catalogue since and have particularly enjoyed his recent forays into black comedy.

Old Passions Reignited

Shirley Jackson – an author I’ve always admired but only been able to find in libraries rather than bookshops, at least until recently. Luckily, her books are now back in print courtesy of Penguin Modern Classics, so I have availed myself of several of those, as well as The Library of America collection of her most famous novels and stories. I also have the illuminating biography by Ruth Franklin, and even her stories of the chaos of family life.

Mihail Sebastian – I’d always admired him as a playwright and was particularly fond of his novel The Accident, because so much of it was set in the mountains and referred to skiing. But this past year I’ve read his diaries and much less sentimental, more polemical novel For Two Thousand Years and I fell in love even more with his voice and clear-sightedness.

Jean-Patrick Manchette and Georges Simenon – actually, both of them are present with just 2-3 books each, but in each case one volume contain about 11-12 novels (I’ve gone for Simenon’s ‘romans durs’, although I have a few Maigret volumes as well).

Now all I have to do is to actually work my way through all of these, since not all of them have been read. Plus, I’d quite like to reread many of them!