A Few Reviews Behind…

The following books all fall into the category: enjoyable but not enough time to review them fully (perhaps not outstandingly ‘different’ and memorable enough to make me find the time for complete reviews).

fallofmanDavid Lagercrantz: Fall of Man in Wilmslow

Alan Turing dies in Wilmslow, just outside Manchester, by eating a cyanide-laced apple. Was it suicide or murder? This odd mix of detective story and spy thriller speculates on his demise. It’s not badly written and evokes that atmosphere of suspicion and one-upmanship of the 1950s Cold War very well, but I don’t quite see the point of it. The Turing story is by now quite well-known, so it’s really more about the interior journey of one man – the policeman Leonard Corell – who becomes fascinated with Turing and saddened by his life and death. He initially recoils from homosexuality but ultimately can relate to Turing’s misfit status. It does read at times like a treatise on maths and computer science, and the ending is a bit of a nonentity. I then saw the film with Cumberbatch as Turing and was a bit disappointed at the portrayal of Turing as a geek. Difficult he may have been, but there was far more to him than an almost autistic devotion to science and a lack of humour.

fridayNicci French: Friday on My Mind

The fifth in the Frieda Klein series and I still enjoy Frieda’s moodiness and the descriptions of hidden London (including its underground rivers). But she does do some reckless and silly things which in real life would lead to her being instantly charged and imprisoned. So it was a welcome addition to the investigative team to have a new female detective to view Frieda a little more objectively (and coldly). Above all, I liked the way the authors tackled head-on the ambiguity of grief and the guilt of losing someone one once loved but no longer does.

Image from Tarkovsky film, from bfi.org.uk
Image from Tarkovsky film, from bfi.org.uk

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris

Not my usual reading matter at all, although I do like the more unusual science fiction of Asimov, John Wyndham, Ursula Le Guin and Iain M. Banks. This is a hypnotic and disturbing book about the limits of human comprehension, the tricks our mind can play on us, about whether it’s ever possible to understand and accept the ‘other’, how misunderstandings can lead to escalation of conflict. So, all worthy themes, but too many didactic bits, physics explanations etc. to really grab me. I think I prefer the Tarkovsky version, which apparently Lem described as ‘got it all wrong – it’s not a Love Story set in Space’.
Glad to see it translated properly and accurately into English now, though, rather than via a French translation.

prettybabyMary Kubica: Pretty Baby

A typical suburban family suddenly finds itself careening out of control as they take in a young runaway girl and her baby. This novel speaks to the fears and contradictions in all of us: wanting a comfortable lifestyle vs. wanting to help, trusting vs. being suspicious, frustrations of parenting vs. frustrations of married life and much more. Clever characterisation, with viewpoints shifting from one character to another, until I felt sorry for all of them. Readers who say that the characters are unsympathetic must score very highly on self-esteem, as I recognise many of the thoughts and anxieties of the people in the book – albeit heightened, of course, that’s why it’s a thriller! I did foresee some but not all of the developments, but more than anything it’s a study in disappointment and frustration rather than a straightforward thriller, despite its explosive finale. I’ve tipped Mary Kubica as a woman author to watch on the CFL website and certainly look forward to reading more by her.

Stefan Zweig: Novellas and Short Stories


Some upcoming deadlines means that this may well be my last contribution to German literature month. I have enjoyed it greatly and will continue to read the reviews by other participants (and, of course, I will continue to read German literature throughout the year – in fact, I’ve just ordered two books for Christmas).

Stefan Zweig is an old favourite, but it’s been nearly two decades since I last read any of his work. I reread the ‘Chess’ novella and ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’, but I think it was the first time I read ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’ and ‘The Invisible Collection’. It’s these four I want to talk about.

The novella has been filmed many times. This is a German version from 1960, from cinema.de
The novella has been filmed many times. This is a German version from 1960, from cinema.de

Chess‘ is famous for being the only work openly addressing the interrogation methods and political persecution by the Gestapo. It has an interesting structure of a story within a story – or rather two stories within a story, as we also find out more about the background of the reigning world champion in chess, Czentowic – which serves perhaps to create a bit of distance and make the grim tale somewhat more bearable. (It did remind me of the structure of ‘Wuthering Heights’.) It was also the last complete work Zweig wrote before committing suicide and perhaps best conveys his feeling of hopelessness, his loss of idealism and how he felt the world of materialism (in the person of Czentowic) was winning over. Zweig commented at some point how he felt ‘so much of human dignity has gone lost during this century’. Most surprising of all, Zweig himself was not a good chess player at all – but clearly a keen observer of other players.

Joan Fontaine in the film version, from cinema.de
Joan Fontaine in the film version, from cinema.de

By way of contrast, ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman‘ struck me as a bit overblown and sentimental. It throws everything at us: passionate love, undying devotion, a child’s death and self-sacrifice. Yet the end rang true: that the writer to whom this is all addressed (the writer who is supposed to be such a sensitive, empathetic person) still cannot remember the woman whose life he has so dramatically influenced.

Incident on Lake Geneva’ is a very short tale which can be read allegorically. A naked man is fished out of Lake Geneva: he turns out to be a Russian POW who has escaped from camp. He is wild and unkempt, can barely make himself understood, but a hotel-owner who speaks some Russian finally manages to communicate with him. He was trying to swim eastwards towards Russia, which he thought was at the other end of the lake. When he is told that Russia is much farther away, that the country he was fighting for no longer exists, the Tsar is dead, the war not quite over and that he is not free to return home until he completes a lengthy bureaucratic process, he chooses to drown. A heartbreaking story of losing one’s identity and sense of belonging.

unsichbaresammlungThe last one I read was my favourite ‘The Invisible Collection‘: an art dealer visits the home of an old man, his father’s best client, in the hope of getting some valuable sketches and prints from his notable collection. But it turns out that the old man’s wife and daughter have sold the priceless sketches in order to cope with rampant inflation, relying on the fact that the collector is now blind and can no longer tell the real from the fake. A beautiful, moving scene follows, in which the collector leafs through his collection and describes each of his beloved pieces in detail, while the art dealer sees the feeble copies but tries to keep the illusion intact. This is a wonderful story about the power of imagination and passion, the joy that is within us rather than in anything we possess. Ultimately, an uplifting and hopeful story.


German Lit Month: crime and humour


You know I like crime fiction and you know I like German literature, so of course I couldn’t resist sneaking in a few crime novels for German Literature Month. This time I look at two novels which purport to bring crime and comedy together, even though English speakers like to pretend that the Germans lack a sense of humour.

KayankayaJakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord (One Man, One Murder)

The archetypical hard-boiled yet compassionate German detective with a Turkish name (and looks) is back in this third outing by the wonderful Arjouni. Arjouni really hits his stride in this one: Kayankaya has become much more thoughtful, mature and empathetic in this book, whilst also retaining his rebellious streak, sheer bloody-mindedness and vicious sense of humour.

Weidenbusch is a bright round ball of a middle-aged man who ‘probably irons his underwear and thinks that pink glasses and colourful watches would give him a personality’. He hires Kayankaya to find the love of his life, Sri Dao, a young Thai woman he has been trying to rescue from a strip joint. She was promised false papers which would enable her to settle in Germany, but has now disappeared, and her boyfriend thinks she might have been kidnapped. Kayankaya starts combing first the bars and brothels of Frankfurt, then the asylum seekers’ detention centres, the deportation unit at the airport and other government offices. Along the way, he encounters squalor, desperation, corruption, party politics and entrepreneurial criminals who do not shy away from making money out of the most vulnerable in society.

Unsavoury characters abound in this (oddly timely) look at immigrants and refugees falling off the radar in the underbelly of Frankfurt. Kayankaya meets each racist aside with his trademark sarcasm and turning of tables. Arjouni is not afraid of handling big themes with clear-eyed, unsentimental storytelling, wit, but above all understanding.

They’d fled. They’d gone halfway round the world with just two cases. They’d written applications, been turned down, renewed their applications, been turned down again, were housed in stables or ten to a room. They’d hidden and lived without papers and now they wanted to get some false ones. They’d managed to find 3000 Marks out of nowhere, had tried everything, just to be able to say: tomorrow I can sleep as long as I like… But they don’t have a chance. Refused means refused. The refugee “in whose culture torture is a common method for questioning”. The refugee ‘who would not have to fear any repercussions upon his return to his home country, if only he had not been politically active – and he was fully aware of the risks he was taking’. And of course the ‘economic migrant’, regarded as a vagrant when he stands in front of our German supermarkets, as if hunger and poverty for three quarters of the world’s population is a basic human right… Sooner or later, they’ll find them all and put them on the nearest plane. [my translation]

MorgueJutta Profijt: Morgue Drawer Four (transl. Erik Macki)

I have a faint suspicion that Profijt may have modelled herself on Arjouni in this mad caper of a crime novel (shortlisted for the Glauser Prize). I rather liked the set-up, although I struggle to see how it could win any literary prizes.

Sascha (who prefers to be called Pascha) is a car thief who believes he is too cool for school, but is in fact just a small-time, foul-mouthed criminal. After being pushed off a bridge, he refuses to accept the verdict of accidental death and haunts gentle, hesitant pathologist, Martin Gänsewein, a stickler for detail, whose life is turned upside-down through his ability to communicate with the dead spirit.

The humour was inconsistent, fine at times and a bit forced at others, and I can see how the story might wear thin for a series. A perfectly fun read for a first attempt and a bit different from the usual crime fare, but nothing like Arjouni’s deep humanism and precise style here. Entertainment rather than enlightenment is the purpose here.


I Was Jack Mortimer


JackMortimerA strange little number this time round, somewhat reminiscent of ‘The Third Man’, by an Austrian author I had never heard of before. Pushkin Vertigo, the new imprint from Pushkin Press, seems to specialise in little-known, unusual mystery books. Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer (transl. by Ignat Avsey) is no exception. Published in 1933, it’s a book balancing between faded past and uncertain future, aristocratic and working-class Vienna.

There are clear parallels with German Expressionist films – Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ comes to mind – and early American gangster films, with ambiguous and unreliable main protagonists, cold femmes fatales and lack of clarity about who – if anyone – is on the side of the good and the just. Dashiel Hammett’s sparse, hard-boiled style must have been an influence on Lernet-Holenia. It sounds like his work is derivative, but it has its very own quirky originality and goes in unexpected directions.

Ferdinand Sponer is a thirty-year old taxi driver with upwardly mobile aspirations. Having read the cover blurb, I was expecting a dead body in his cab from the word go, rather than a longish introduction in which he moons around after one of his passengers, a beautiful and haughty young lady of aristocratic descent. His behaviour might best be described as stalking, despite the fact that he has a long-suffering girlfriend, Marie, who takes good care of him (one of the typical Viennese ‘süßes Mädl’, a good-natured working-class girl more sexually available than her bourgeois counterpart, who frequently crops up in art and literature as an object to be used and discarded). So by no means a likeable person. Nor does author give us a great deal of insight into the character’s psyche: we can only deduce Ferdinand’s personality and thoughts from his actions, which are described in minute detail, with almost forensic precision and coldness. Here’s how he reacts, for instance, when he discovers the dead body (when it finally does appear):

He edged backwards out of the cab, straightened up and struck his head hard against the top of the door frame. His cap fell forward over his face. He instinctively pushed it back with his forearm instead of with his blood-stained gloved hand. He turned around… He took a couple of slow steps, then three or four very quick ones. He pulled off his blood-stained gloves and threw them into the car. Closing his eyes momentarily, he slammed the rear door shut, then got in his seat, turned off the interior light and, closing his own door with his left hand, swung the car to the right and headed towards the policeman operating the traffic signals at the centre of the crossroads.

Scene from The Third Man, from filmcapsule.com
Scene from The Third Man, from filmcapsule.com

But, needless to say, he does not quite succeed in alerting the police. Instead, he gets sucked ever deeper into a dangerous game of concealing the body and impersonating the dead man. This isn’t a conventional detective story, though, for it’s not really about finding a killer or even about discovering how the man in the cab got shot without the driver noticing. It’s more of a mad race through the streets of Vienna by night, including a scene of confusion and paranoia in the hotel room, plus a longish, very cinematographic chase scene with Marie as the heroine. So a thriller with a mad caper thrown in for good measure, and a personal journey of awakening for the main protagonist. Not quite a noirish ending either.

I’m not quite sure what to think of it. I rather admire the ‘behaviourist’ style, although it does get more interiorised as Sponer gets more panicky. I would have liked perhaps something more obviously noir and downbeat, but of course I enjoyed the descriptions of driving around a grey, Novemberish Vienna. I also liked the sly digs at a city in which everyone is slightly dishonest and snobbish. All in all, this is an atmospheric recreation of Vienna between the two World Wars.


Julia Franck: West (transl. Anthea Bell)


I received this book just in time for German Literature Month, from the fair hands (or post office) of Lizzy herself. Big thanks to Lizzy for a book which left a deep and unsettling impression.

WestI noticed many reviews on Goodreads stating that it was too depressing and bleak, an accusation also levied against Herta Müller, who also handles similar themes. Perhaps the problem is that there is no character readers can fully identify with: each one is flawed, ambiguous, makes us slightly uneasy. We get to hear in alternating chapters from scientist Nelly Senff, who escapes to the West with her two children; Krystyna, a Polish cellist who has given up her music, sold her instrument and moved her whole family to Germany to seek medical treatment for her brother; John Bird, the American CIA agent who hopes to further his career by unearthing Stasi spies; and Hans Pischke, an actor who was a political prisoner back in his native East Germany. Although each is narrated in first person, we never feel we completely understand the motivation of each protagonist. But then we get to see each character through the others’ eyes, which gives an interesting multi-faceted perspective, but also creates a distancing effect.

The daily humiliations and harassment the immigrants have to face, both inside the refugee camp and outside it, are described with blistering realism. The cramped conditions, the parcelling out of unwanted food, babies crying, couples quarrelling, suspicions and accusations of favouritism. In addition to all that, Nelly’s children are horribly bullied at school. There is a painful scene in the hospital with the doctors refusing to believe the son’s account of how he got beaten up, culminating with an even more cringeworthy scene when one of the bullies’ mother brings him to the hospital to apologise to Nelly’s son.

Finally, you also have an additional layer of humiliation from the gender perspective, as Nelly is an attractive young woman, while Krystyna is a fat middle-aged woman, and the men all around them feel entitled to make rude remarks about both. There are many other such memorable scenes, and on the whole the three refugees handle them all with a passivity and resignation which may infuriate some readers, but has probably allowed them to endure so much. Just occasionally, however, they break down and burst out, as Nelly does in the West German interrogation room. Or else they employ the ‘weapons of the weak’, as Hans does by refusing to thank the woman who hands out the weekly rations at the camp because:

I didn’t feel like heightening her sense of self-importance; there was far too much of it in her voice anyway.

This book reminded me of other books about immigration which I have read recently: Americanah and Die undankbare Fremde, which also discuss the heavy burden of expectations on the shoulders of ‘good’ immigrants. The host country expects immigrants to be grateful, fit in, accept everything unquestioningly, remain uncritical of their hosts, smile and be happy.

West German officials certainly don’t come out well from these exchanges. When Hans refuses to cooperate by informing about women who might be engaging in prostitution in the camp, his employment advisor lambasts him:

‘I just don’t get it… here you all are, you arrive without anything, without winter shoes, without a washing machine, without even clothes to put in a washing machine, without a roof over your heads, without a penny in your pockets, let alone a mark, you hold up your hands, you take what you want and turn down what you don’t, you make claims. That’s what you do.’

Author photo from Hochschule Rhein Main
Author photo from Hochschule Rhein Main

Well-meant efforts of help come across as patronising and misguided. The final Christmas party scene at the refugee centre is a perfect example, full of sardonic humour. And that’s what makes this book difficult to read, perhaps, and yet so topical during the current refugee crisis. We in the Western world mean well, yet for scarred and victimised individuals, we can come across as arrogant and ignorant. They then react in unexpected ways, which do not conform to our norms of  acceptable and understandable behaviour. So the misunderstanding, mutual dislike and suspicion grows between us.

How to resolve this? Short of making everyone experience a little of the fear, uncertainty and infantilisation which immigrants often encounter? Well, it will have to be books like this, both fictional and real-life accounts, which will hopefully keep our vein of compassion flowing and our sense of justice forever insatiate.

Side-note: Julia Franck’s family moved to West Germany when she was eight years old, and spent some time in a refugee camp, so this novel is based on personal experiences. I understand some of her other books are far more bleak, but this one had a fierce, scathing humour and sarcasm which made it bearable.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Der Verdacht (Suspicion)


My first review this year for the always inspiring German Literature Month – see more reviews and recommendations here, including another review of Dürrenmatt by Jacqui.

The playwright at the age of two, from duerrenmatt.net
The playwright at the age of two, from duerrenmatt.net

I still find it hard to believe that Dürrenmatt was writing both this novel and its predecessor as a way of paying bills (for his wife’s hospitalisation, amongst other things). In fact, this one was written and published at a rapid pace, almost concurrently, in weekly installments in the populist newspaper Schweizer Beobachter. At the time he was also working on a play and living in rather cramped conditions with his small family in the house of his mother-in-law on the lake in Biel. Some of it was written in the hospital in Berne, where half of the action takes place.

Dürrenmatt was well-known for his anti-Nazi stance and for poking fun at his fellow countrymen’s supposed neutrality during the Second World War. Suspicion takes up where The Judge and His Hangman left off. Inspector Bärlach is in hospital recovering from an operation which has only managed to prolong his life by a year. His surgeon, Dr. Hungertobel, is also a friend and as they sit together chatting one day, the doctor thinks that he recognises an old classmate of his in a picture of a Nazi camp doctor known for his terrible atrocities. He quickly repudiates that idea, however, as his classmate spent the war years in Chile and even published articles in medical journals during that time. But the seeds of suspicion have been planted in Bärlach’s mind and this most intuitive and internalised of detectives embarks upon a personal investigation from his hospital bed.

There are similarities with Josephine Tey’s ‘The Daughter of Time’ in this set-up, but the stubborn Swiss inspector goes one step further. He persuades the reluctant Hungertobel to move him to convalesce in the sanatorium for wealthy people opened by the doctor he suspects of Nazi war crimes. This is when the story becomes much less of a straightforward investigation and takes on certain nightmarish, almost surreal qualities.

verdachtDürrenmatt’s playwriting skills come to the fore in this book. We have far fewer descriptions of landscapes and houses: nearly every scene takes place in an enclosed, indoor space, quite claustrophobic. Dialogues drive the plot and some of them even turn into serial monologues as first one character and then another spells out their view of the world, their beliefs and values (or lack thereof). As one of the protagonists says:

You’re silent. People nowadays don’t like answering the question: ‘What do you believe in?’ It’s become indecent to ask such a question. ‘We don’t like using big words’ is what we modestly tell ourselves, but most of all we don’t like giving an exact answer… (own translation)

With just a few deft strokes and excellent use of dialogue and humour, the author sketches some unforgettable character portraits: the stubborn and profoundly religious nurse from the Emmental (interesting aside: Dürrenmatt himself was born there as the son of a Protestant pastor); the assistant doctor Marlok, a former Communist who has lost all her ideals and needs daily doses of morphine to maintain her beauty and perhaps her conscience; the increasingly uneasy Dr. Hungertobel, who wants to believe the best of every one he encounters.

Above all, it is not just Bärlach’s life which is in danger, but also his soul, for the nihilistic voices taunt him and his belief in justice:

You’re the kind of fool who swears by mathematical truths. The law is the law. X = X … But the law isn’t the law: power is… Nothing is what it seems in this world, everything is a lie. When we say law, we mean power; and when we say power, we think of riches…

Dürrenmatt captures perfectly the spirit of his age, the immediate post-war years, with all the doubts, anxieties and dislike of any kind of ideology. As the world descended into the newly rigid battle trenches of the Cold War chaos, suspicion becomes a way of life. But how can humanity survive on nihilism alone?

So, not a conventional crime novel as such, but posing many moral dilemmas instead. Yet it still has puzzle-solving and tension (including a ‘race against the clock’) to please crime readers. The author takes up the theme of guilt and responsibility, revenge and justice again and again, including in his best-known plays Romulus the Great, The Visit and The Physicists.




October Reading Round-Up and Picks of the Month

Strange month of business trips, sleepless nights, work deadlines – all of which tend to spur me on to greater reading heights (anything to avoid having to deal with work). But this time I read rather less than in previous months. As for the writing – forget it, I don’t think I’ve written anything new since the 10th of August.

Back to reading, however. 9 books, of which 7 by men (to counterbalance the feminine July and August). 5 crime novels (arguably, Richard Beard’s biblical thriller could have fit into this category as well), plus one very unusual read out of my comfort zone – namely, a YA dystopian fantasy novel. I even managed to reread one book, an old favourite of mine, Jean Rhys. 3 of the books were translations or in another language. Finally, my trip to Canada did bear fruit, as I read two Canadian writers this month.

Crime fiction:

Gunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind

John Harvey: Cold in Hand

Jeremie Guez: Eyes Full of Empty (to be reviewed on CFL, together with an interview with the author)

Bernard Minier: The Circle (Le Cercle)

Alan Bradley: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (to be reviewed on CFL)

YA fantasy:

wastelandersNicholas Grey: The Wastelanders

Since this is not my usual reading material, I lack the context and the comparisons to be able to say: this is good or this could have been better. I enjoyed the storytelling ability of the author, and it ends on a cliff-hanger, being the first in a trilogy. I believe it is in the Hunger Games mould, featuring children struggling to survive in a ruthless post-apocalyptic society headed by a dictator and inciting them to fight against the ‘monstrous outsiders’. An allegory of ‘otherness’ and abuse of power, written in an accessible, exciting style which is sure to appeal to boys aged 11-14.


Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

Women writers:

Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals

mackenzieJean Rhys: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie.

Here’s what I said about it on Goodreads:

I was attracted to its darkness and nihilism as a teenager, but now I can appreciate its understated drama and writing style more. A small masterpiece of descent into hopelessness from which all the current ‘middle-aged woman in a life crisis’ books could benefit.

And here’s an extract which should give you a flavour:

It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls round you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out. And after a while you got used to it. Of course. And then you stopped believing that there was anything else anywhere.

I want to write a longer feature about Jean Rhys at some point, as she is one of my favourite writers – you know me and my love for the gloomy! I also feel she is still somewhat underrated. I’ve also discovered there are two Jean Rhys biographies to discover (although so much is unknown about her life).

I enjoyed 5 out of my 9 reads very much indeed, and the rest were quite good as well, although I had certain reservations about a couple (as I mentioned in a previous post). My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month is John Harvey’s Cold in Hand, for its unsentimental, fearless yet very moving description of grief. But my top reads are actually the two books by the women writers, both very gripping, realistic and disturbing reads about those living on the edge of what society deems to be ‘nice’ and ‘acceptable’.