#6Degrees of Separation: From Wolfe Island…

Spring is in the air and another opportunity to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Of course, it does help if you know the starting book, but once again this month I do not! The book is Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar and the blurb states: For years Kitty Hawke has lived alone on Wolfe Island, witness to the island’s erosion and clinging to the ghosts of her past. Her work as a sculptor and her wolfdog Girl are enough. News of mainland turmoil is as distant as myth until refugees from that world arrive: her granddaughter Cat, and Luis and Alejandra, a brother and sister escaping persecution. When threats from the mainland draw closer, they are forced to flee for their lives. They travel north through winter, a journey during which Kitty must decide what she will do to protect the people she loves.

I want to move away from end-of-the-world narratives, as they feel a bit too topical at the moment. So instead I will focus on the fact that Lucy Treloar is an Australian writer. I have to admit I only very seldom get to read writers from Australia, especially women writers. One Australian author I particularly admire (although she travelled so much, she must surely have considered herself a global nomad author) is Shirley Hazzard. One book of hers I always, always recommend is the collection of linked short stories People in Glass Houses, which is a brilliant satire of the United Nations in particular (but really of all international organisations).

There are far too few good novels about office life, especially considering we spend so much of our time there. Perhaps publishers assume we all seek escapism rather than to be reminded of our deadly everyday? Another book about office life which I greatly enjoyed is Jonas Karlsson’s The Room, translated by Neil Smith. A narrator who evades all description and manages to find that secret escape room that I’m sure we’ve all longed for at the office at times. When I read it five years ago, I said: Very sharp, painfully funny but also ouch-harsh observations of office politics and recognisable office characters. Plus the lovely corporate jargon we all love to espouse at times. A short, unusual book which tests our own capacity for tolerance and imagination.

Turns out, there are a lot of novels with ‘room’ in their title, so I will opt for quite a well-known one next, one that I would like to re-read, as I was in my late teens or early 20s when I read it. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a classic of gay literature, a story evoking all the giddiness of falling in love, but ultimately all the sadness and suffering of a failed love.

The book is set in Paris, so of course I couldn’t resist picking another novel set in Paris for my next link. I saw it recently on the library shelves at university and was very tempted to pick it up for a re-read. Zola’s The Masterpiece is the tragic story of Claude Lantier, an ambitious and talented young artist who has come from the provinces to conquer Paris but is conquered instead by the flaws of his own genius. Another young man seduced but ultimately undone by the bright lights of Paris!

One book about art and artists that I was obsessed with in my childhood, so much so that I took it with me on a family trip to Florence and insisted that we walk through the streets as described in its pages, was Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, a fictional biography of Michelangelo. I don’t know if it’s well regarded nowadays, or if it’s perceived as somewhat dated, but at the time I loved the descriptions of Florence and Rome, but above all, how the author managed to enter Michelangelo’s mind (via his notebooks, if I am not mistaken) and described the creative process.

My final link is via the word ‘ecstasy’ to a book that was part of my anthropological training. Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy was written in the 1950s but remains one of the key texts in the anthropology of religion. Needless to say, I’ve always been fascinated by this strange phenomenon of the Shaman, both healer and threat, revered and feared, the madman and the poet who does not subscribe to society’s rules.

So this month we have travelled from Australia to the United States to Sweden and Paris, to Florence and, in the last book, from Siberia to South America to Tibet and China and pretty much everywhere in-between. I’ve also noticed that I’ve mentioned mainly male authors this month, so will endeavour to change the proportion next month. Where will your six links take you?

Paul Auster: Winter Journal

Late for the memoir February, late for the Auster reading week, but I’d borrowed this from the library and was intrigued enough to continue reading. It’s a rather lovely continuation of The Invention of Solitude, this time the mother’s side of the story, as well as more about both his first and second marriage. He certainly seems smitten with his second wife, a companionship and meeting of minds which sounds very appealing – although clearly there was a lot of friendship with the first wife too, but perhaps not quite so much love.

I’m not really in the mood for reviewing, so I’ll just list below a few quotes which stayed with me.

[about his mother] There were three of her, three separate women who seemed unconnected to one another… you never knew which mask she would be wearing on any given day. At one end, there was the diva, the sumptuously decked-out charmer who dazzled the world in public, the young woman with the obtuse, distracted husband who craved having the eyes of others upon her and would not allow herself – not anymore – to be boxed into the role of traditional housewife. In the middle, which was far and away the largest space she occupied, there was a solid and responsible being, a person of intelligence and compassion, the woman who took care of you… competent, genberous, observant of the world around her… At the other end… there was the frightened and debilitated neurotic, the helpless creature prey to blistering assaults of anxiety, the phobic whose incapacities grew as the years advanced

Aren’t we all made up of such contradictory multitudes? He is far less critical of his wife, however:

Little by little… you discovered that you saw eye to eye on nearly everything of any importance… Much to your relief, your personalities were nothing alike. She laughed more than you did, she was freer and more outgoing than you were, she was warmer than you were… you felt that you had met another version of yourself – but one that was more fully evolved than you were, better able to express what you kept bottled up inside you, a saner being.

And his description of their celebration of the 30th anniversary of when they first met sounds like my ideal relationship: they go to a hotel, eat the restaurant, drink champagne and talk and talk and talk ‘the long uninterrupted conversation that started the day you met’. Sharing ideas and feelings, especially about personal and cultural things, are what makes me dreamy… But I was most amused by his rant about the dangers of nostalgia.

You have no use for the good old days. Whenever you find yourself slipping into a nostalgic frame of mind, mourning the loss of the things that seemed to make life better then than it is now, you tell yourself to stop and think carefully, to look back at Then with the same crutiny you apply to looking at Now… Of course you have manifold grievances against the evils and stupidities of contemporary American life… the sacendency of the right, the injustices of the economy, the neglect of the environment, the collapsing infrastructure, the senselss wars, the barabarism of legalized torture and extraordinary renditions, the disintegration of impoversihed cities like Buffalo and Detroit… the ever-gorwing crevasse that divides the rich from the poor, not to speak of the junk films we are making, the junk food we are eating, the junk thoughts we are thinking…And yet, go back to the year of your birth and try and remember what America looked like in its golden age of postwar prosperity: Jim Crow laws in full force throughout the South, anti-Semitic quota restrictions, back-alley abortions… the trials of the Hollywood Ten, the Cold War, the Red Scare, the Bomb… Every moment in history is fraught with its own problems, its own injustices, and every period manufactures its own legends and pieties.

Paul Auster Reading Week: The Invention of Solitude

When I was a student, Paul Auster was all the rage in Romania. My fellow students of languages and literature were all going through a post-modern craze at the time (literary currents tended to reach our shores a decade or two later). Boys and girls were wearing black roll-neck jumpers and smoking, discussing Derrida and Foucault, reading The New York Trilogy and Umberto Eco, John Fowles and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. [Yes, I wonder too sometimes about those strange juxtapositions.]

But I have to admit I haven’t read Auster since the late 1990s. When Annabel announced that Paul Auster is her favourite writer and that she would dedicate a whole week to reading and reviewing his books, I idly checked the catalogue at my university library and came away with three books. (I can seldom stop at just one – that goes for both cakes and books. Maybe that’s why I never started smoking, even in my postmodernist university days…) And this one fits nicely with my memoir reading month this February.

The Invention of Solitude is his debut work, a memoir and a meditation on what makes us the people that we are, especially men and writers. It’s made up of two parts: Portrait of an Invisible Man, a description of Auster’s distant, apparently cold and unemotive father as Auster goes through his belongings in an attempt to clear the house after his death. The second part, The Book of Memory, is a mix of memoir and fiction, an exploration of Auster’s own relationship with his son, but also of all fathers in art and literature, mixed in with a sense of grief and loss as the narrator waits for the death of his grandfather. Pascal Bruckner, who wrote the preface to the 25th anniversary edition, claims that this is Paul Auster’s ars poetica and that there is a theme of remorse running through all of his work. How painful it is to be an individual today when we no longer have the protective shells of any ideologies or beliefs, Bruckner says, and of Auster’s characters, he has this rather striking description: ‘Their chaotic odyssey never ends in peace, and they always fail to regain their lost innocence.’

Back to the ‘Invisible Man’. After his parents’ divorce, his father refused to budge from the house that had become far too big for him. He was also a rather stingy man, who tried to do all the repairs himself, even where he was not really qualified to do so. Auster sees the house as mirroring his father’s inner world and the indescribable blankness or emptiness at the centre of it.

.. although he kept the house tidy and preserved it more or less as it had been, it underwent a gradual and ineluctable process of disintegration. He was neat, he always put things back in their proper place, but nothing was cared for, nothing was ever cleaned.

As he delves deeper into his father’s life, he finds it seems to be all about appearances, that there appear to be no depths – deliberately so. This is a man who seems to find life tolerable only by staying on the surface of things – his relationships with women, with his children. It’s all about preserving that superficiality, not having to reveal himself, waiting hat at the ready and walking stick in hand, ready to escape at any given time. After describing some of the typical disappointments of his childhood, and how he felt unseen and unappreciated, Auster concludes that:

…even if I had done all the things I had hoped to do, his reaction would have been exactly the same. Whether I succeeded or failed did not essentially matter to him… Like everything else in his life, he saw me only through the mists of his solitude, as if at several removes from himself. The world was a distant place for him, I think, a place he was never truly able to enter…

The reason for this aloofness and solitude is revealed when Auster finds an old family portrait amongst his family belongings. His father is the baby in the arms of his mother, surrounded by an older sister and three brothers. He notices that the photograph had been torn and stuck together again, as if a certain person (his grandfather, he later realises) had been taken out of the picture. One of his cousins finds out by coincidence the real story about his grandfather’s death and the family’s subsequent life. A traumatic episode which certainly must have contributed to his father’s sense of insecurity and transience, ‘no enduring points of reference’, his conviction that no one is to be trusted, that you cannot expose your vulnerability by loving someone, that it is best not to want anything too much.

As he attends his father’s funeral, as he tries to cling on to a few of his objects, Auster finds his father slipping away from him again, becoming invisible once more. Except now he has started to understand him, perhaps even forgive him, as he struggles with the challenges of fatherhood himself. I had somehow missed this book when I was going through my Auster phase, I only read his fiction, but I found it oddly moving and quite understated.

I’m not sure if I will have time to read the other books this week (Winter Journal and Timbuktu, in case you are wondering). I also think that taking Paul Auster in smaller doses is probably more sensible at my age. These days, I also think I prefer the writing of his wives, Lydia Davis and Siri Hustvedt. But thank you, Annabel, for reminding me of his existence!

Oh, Vienna, you double-faced city!

If you’ve ever come across Thomas Bernhard, you’ll know that he’s often called ‘the grumpy old man of Austrian literature’. He seemed to revile so much of Austrian society, history, smugness and hypocrisy, especially that of Vienna (which seemed to him the culmination of all things Austrian), that he even asked in his will that none of his works should be published (or his plays performed) there after his death. But he was far from the only Austrian writer who had a love-hate relationship with Austria – and with Vienna in particular. Nobel Prize winners Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Handke often launched into bitter invectives against the city, as did Karl Kraus. Even those who mourn the faded splendours of the city (and the death of a particular way of life) have very ambivalent feelings towards it: Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, Schnitzler, Zweig. In fact, you can read a whole article about it in the Paris Review.

At a recent reunion with my international friends who all grew up in Vienna together, we realised that we all love the city, its beautiful architecture, the hills surrounding it, its rich cultural heritage, and above all its food (‘Mehlspeisen’ is the Austrian name for desserts, literally ‘floury meals’ and I’ve yet to meet someone who does not yearn for those extremely filling childhood joys). What do we remember less fondly? The rules and regulations, the ‘alles verboten’ draconian mentality, and the Viennese themselves. While I hesitate to put all Viennese in the same pot (some of my very good friends are Viennese), it’s undeniable that there is a schizophrenic element to the Viennese personality. Their renowned Gemütlichkeit (warmth, friendliness, geniality) and politeness makes you feel initially much more welcome than you might do in the northern reaches of Germany, but then you realise that hypocrisy, pretentiousness and a deep-rooted suspicion of strangers (which seems bizarre in a diverse former empire) are equally engrained. Give me a rude, straight-talking but honest Berliner or Hamburger any time, you might be tempted to say.

And yet, reading Thomas Bernhard‘s hilarious send-up of the Viennese artistic circles in Woodcutters (in the translation of David McLintock), I couldn’t help but fall in love again with that particular Wiener Schmäh – the black humour, often charming, frequently vicious – that is so characteristic of the city. The novel has the subtitle ‘eine Erregung’, which is usually used to describe sexual arousal, but could be translated in this context as an irritation or agitated rant. And this is exactly what it is. Our narrator is back in Vienna after a long period away. He runs into the Auersbergers, an artistic couple he used to be friends with three decades ago, and allows himself to be invited to a dinner party, which keeps getting postponed because the guest of honour, an actor at the Burgtheater, is late. While everyone is waiting and getting increasingly hungry, the narrator spends most of the rest of the book and the party seated in a wing-backed chair (the repetition of this phrase alone makes for a great comic effect), moaning and complaining about the people there and wondering why he ever accepted the invitation into a house and milieu that he thoroughly despises. He has been unnerved by the funeral of a formerly close friend who committed suicide (another staple in Bernhard’s fiction) and he really lets rip about his hosts and their guests.

… to think what these people have made of themselves in these thirty years!… All these people have contrived to turn conditions and circumstances that were once happy into something utterly depressing, I thought, sitting in the wing chair; they’ve managed to make everyting depressing, to transform all the happiness they once had into utter depression, just as I have…. All these people had come to Vienna in the fifties… hoping they would go far, as they say, but the farthest they actually went in Vienna was to become tolerably successful provincial artists, and the question is whether they would have gone any farther in any other so-called big city…

Of course, there is plenty to satirise in the vacuity and pretentiousness of the Viennese literary, musical and theatrical circles. Vienna is in many ways not a big city, not one of the world capitals. It is a city that was once the capital of an empire, but has now become a pretty piece of scenery and a backwater. None of its inhabitants accept that, of course. Culturally, at least (they tell themselves), they are still the belly-button of Europe. A new theatre director or conductor is headline news in Vienna, and everyone has an opinion about it. Apparently, the characters Bernhard mocks are so thinly veiled that they would have been perfectly recognisable at the time to any Austrian reader. The publishers feared libel suits and it was indeed soon banned.

Vienna is an art mill, the biggest art mill in the world, in which the arts and artists are ground down and pulverized year in, year out; whatever the art or whatever the artists, the Viennese art mill grinds them all to powder… and the curious thing is that all these people jump into this art mill entirely of their own volition…

But Bernhard does not just mock the guests. The narrator himself is also on the carving block. The way he paces up the Graben and down the Kärntner Strasse, then up the Kärntner Strasse and down the Graben again (two famous pedestrian streets right in the centre of Vienna), only to be accosted by old friends he supposedly wants to avoid, is very typical of the small-town mentality of promenading up and down the main road (what the Italians call the passeggiata). This habit is still alive and well in Vienna and you are likely to meet anyone who is anyone there in the centre sooner or later (plus a whole load of tourists nowadays). The grumpy passive-aggressive muttering in the corner is also typical of the Viennese personality. The actor, who at first seems to be a self-satisfied twit, then expresses a flight of fancy which captures the narrator’s imagination and pity. He says how much happier he would have been with the simple, lonely lifestyle of a woodcutter, and this yearning, although still dripping in Bernhardian irony, tugs a little at our heartstrings.

The final pages of the novel remind me so much of Cavafy’s poem about The City, the one you are doomed to always carry around with you, a burden and an ideal.

I ran away from the Auersberger nightmare and toward the Inner City, and as I ran I reflected that the city through which I was running, dreadful though I had always felt it to be and still felt it to be, was still the best city there was, that Vienna, which I found detestable and had always found detestable, was suddenly once again the best city in the world, my own city, my beloved Vienna, and that these people, whom I had always hated and still hated and would go on hating, were still the best people in the world: I hated them, yet found them somehow touching – I hated Vienna, yet found it somehow touching – I cursed these people, yet could not help loving them – I hated Vienna yet could not help loving it… This is my city and always will be my city…

It’s a very tongue-in-cheek novel, in which you must question nearly everything that the narrator tells you, yet there is also a lot of truth in what he says. While you may not find it quite as hilarious as someone who loves/hates the Viennese, it is a bright and short introduction to Bernhard’s work, far more accessible than some of his other works.

Typical Viennese architecture

By pure chance, a few evenings ago I attended a seminar organised by the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies which confirmed the almost schizophrenic nature of Viennese society, especially in the 1930s. Entitled ‘A School turns Brown: A Micro-Historical Analysis of the Grammar School G3 in Vienna and the Expulsion of its Jewish Pupils in April 1938’, the historian Dorothea McEwan (who herself had been a pupil of that school in the 1950s and absolutely loved its humanist tradition and ethic) showed how it took only 6 weeks after the Anschluss for the ‘purification’ of the school. The curriculum was ‘cleansed’, Jewish pupils were expelled and teachers who were not loyal to the Nazis were suddenly moved elsewhere. Six weeks. It is frightening how easy it is to descend into blind obedience to the siren call of law and order and authoritarianism. And Austria has never been immune to that siren call…

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