After libraries, bookshops are my second favourite place to spend time. So here’s a selection of bookshop Friday Funs that I’ve gathered over the years. And hope St. Nicholas has brought lots of oranges and chocolates in your boots this morning!
After a few months of geographical reading, which I hugely enjoyed and which I intend to continue in 2020, I am having a ‘free-form jazz’ December. I will read whatever I please whenever I please, no plans, no judgements, perhaps no reviews?
I’ve started with Shirley Jackon’s Raising Demons, because I instantly thought of her when I finished the Euridice Gusmao book – the talented woman beset by domestic drama scenario. I will also finish Austrian writer Gerhard Jäger’s All die Nacht über uns (The Night All Around Us). I started it last week for German Literature Month but have only reached page 66 so far (I love it, but it’s a book to be savoured slowly and besides, I had a very full weekend). The only other book that I have lying on my bedside table and fully expect to pick up this month is The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness, because it will be 30 years this month since my generation (predominantly) brought down the Communist regime in Romania. As a side note, there’s a conference on this topic in Bucharest on the 21st of December that I’ve been invited to attend, but it’s too much of a logistical challenge. I’ll try to send a filmed contribution instead with the title: Thirty Years On: Illusory Revolutions?
Meanwhile, it’s only two weeks and a bit to go until I will be back in my beloved Genevois area, hunkering down to a lot of reading and writing, eating chocolates and fondue, and meeting some lovely old friends. I will probably buy some more books (on the French side of the border), so am travelling light on my way there, with just my Kindle, which contains a lot of goodies. For example, Will Dean’s Red Snow and Friederike Schmöe’s Drauß’ vom Walde – two crime thrillers set in snowy landscapes (Sweden and Germany respectively). I also have new books (even if they are not that new, but I simply haven’t got around to reading them yet) by authors whose career I like to follow, such as Lily King, Jenny Offill, Attica Locke, Deborah Levy, Valeria Luiselli, Yoko Ogawa… so plenty to keep me busy.
In terms of blogging, well I can’t let the end of the decade go by without at least attempting some personal literary (and perhaps film or theatre) highlights, so expect a few blog posts with ‘best of’ in their title. It’s been quite possibly the worst decade in my life, but even so there have been many happy moments and achievements. Happiness has been skiing, living in mountain country for a while and finally getting a cat, the perfect cat. And my main two achievements have been: returning to writing (after more than a decade in the wilderness) and even having some small things published here and there; and raising two intelligent, opinionated, occasionally lovable scamps.
In celebration of the fact that I don’t have to sell the house until I want to (although I will have no money for any improvements or even essential repairs), here are some dreamy villas that I will never own.
Or, to be precise, two riveting Germans and an equally riveting Georgian now living in Germany!
With impeccable timing, the day I posted my review of Julia Franck’s Die Mittagsfrau, I got to see the author at the British Library, in an event organised by the European Literature Network (headed by Rosie Goldsmith). She was joined on stage by poet and essayist Durs Grünbein and playwright and novelist Nino Haratischwili (or should that be ‘shvili’ for English readers rather than ‘schwili’ for German ones?), whose monumental work The Eighth Life (for Brilka) has just been published in English by Scribe. The translators Charlotte Collins, Ruth Martin and Karen Leeder were also there and read the English version of extracts from the authors’ work.
There was a lot of ground covered in the nearly 90 minutes of discussions and readings, but what particularly stuck in my mind:
Julia Franck and her identical twin sister wrote and enacted fantasy stories together as they were growing up, a bit like the Brontës. She mentioned her Communist grandmother, who was so reluctant to give up her dream of an alternative, better Germany even after the fall of the Wall. She also spoke about the humiliation and cruelty of life as a refugee, the contrast between the utopia you are chasing and the reality of what you find (especially when you are not allowed to integrate into the host society), and why in her book West, the refugee camp itself is a main protagonist. When Rosie Goldsmith asked her why there were so many cruel or cold women in her books (or women who could be interpreted as such), she replied:
Women are not necessarily the better people. I have experienced cruel women in my life… But also what we expect from mothers nowadays is so different from what it was 50-100 years ago. In those days women tried to be strong, to survive, to solve problems, they had no time to be helicopter parents, so they might come across as cold and neglectful.
Durs Grünbein admitting that their generation of German writers were privileged to have the material (of the division and then reunification) to write about. Also, why he prefers poetry: it is easier to swerve from past to present, to be in both time frames and in many different places simultaneously. I loved one particular phrase from one of his poems:
Ist der Sand enttäuscht wenn die Dämmerung fällt?
Is the sand disappointed when evening falls?
Meanwhile, Nino Haratischwili claims she had no intention of writing such an epic novel, and that if she had realised from the outset that it would take four years and 1200 pages to write, she might have abandoned the project before she even started. She was focusing initially only on Georgia in the 1990s, a messy, confused period with the fall of the Soviet Empire and lots of infighting. She was trying to answer her own questions about Georgia’s history and why her country keeps on repeating the same old mistakes, but found that it took her earlier and earlier in time. She also said she wrote in German out of laziness (because she would have had to translate it from Georgian later on), but also because writing in her second language gave her a freedom and a sense of adventure and playfulness.
In your mother tongue you use words and expressions more automatically, but in another language you question things more and have more freedom to experiment. I still have this feeling of discovery in German.
The evening was also an opportunity to launch the newly published German Riveter magazine, with illustrations by the wonderful Axel Scheffler. Containing exclusive extracts and reviews of many new German authors, it also contains an article about German crime fiction written by Kat Hall (mainly) and yours truly (very tangentially).
All in all, a brilliant evening which I’d been looking forward to for months, well worth the logistical acrobatics of arranging for alternative pick-up of the French exchange student.
In October 1989 I lost my heart to an East German music journalist who told me Bryan Adams had predicted the fall of Communism. There’d been ripples of protests in the East bloc countries around us, but they hadn’t really reached us in Bucharest at the time. We were in the firm grip of Communist mania and the cult of one single reigning couple. Radio Free Europe had appalling reception in Bucharest and the walls in our block of flats were thin. No one knew which neighbours might be likely to report on you.
Yet on a magical night in late October, Thomas and I chatted freely until four in the morning, having been careful to turn the radio onto white noise to cover any subversive comments. He told me: ‘All you need is more choice.’ Bryan Adams had said that to him just six weeks before the demonstrations started in East Germany, the borders began leaking via Hungary and Erich Honecker resigned. Six weeks after he quoted Bryan Adams to me, the regime in my country, which had seemed so absurdly invincible, began to crumble too.
With the benefit of hindsight, it was very strange timing to be hosting a foreign journalist in Romania, even one from a ‘friendly’ country such as East Germany. The situation in his own country was highly volatile, was Romania not afraid of becoming contaminated by the spirit of unrest? Did Ceausescu feel so secure on his throne surrounded by bodyguards and sycophants, that he believed no one would want to topple him?
Odd though it was, there I was, acting as the interpreter for Thomas on his exchange trip to Romania. His actual host, who spoke no foreign languages at all (or so he claimed) was Chris of the Youth Spark newspaper of the Young Communists. Chris was the typical party faithful, an automaton who spouted all the nonsensical party lines without blinking. I was embarrassed to be translating that, and I caught Thomas rolling his eyes. Used though he was to these clichés from his own society, Romania in the late 1980s had taken these verbal acrobatics to unparalleled heights.
We took the train to Iasi. Moldova in autumn is a symphony of colour, mellow sunshine and honeyed wine. We visited factories and party headquarters, enthnographic museums and vineyards. We were bombarded with puff pieces about the soaring Romanian economy, when all he was interested in was talking to real people. But we also sneaked out of the hotel in the evening after we had got Chris drunk to visit the beautiful Trei Ierarhi Monastery. We didn’t get to admire much of its intricate outside sculpture work but we heard a choir of young priests in training.
It may not sound like much, but it was extremely subversive for the time. Back in Bucharest, we wandered around the ruins of the old part of town that had been destroyed to make way for Ceausescu’s new civic centre. We had spitting and stamping contests on the banks of the river Dâmbovița. We compared notes on the recent histories of our countries, on censorship and education. We managed to sneak into the Students’ Cultural Institute and played four-handed piano in an empty auditorium. Above all, we talked and talked and talked, a mix of music and politics which was utterly exhilarating. He had interviewed Bruce Springsteen, he knew the song ‘Heut Nacht’ by Spliff that no one else in Romania knew, he dedicated the song ‘Ohne Dich’ by Münchner Freiheit to me in a room full of party officials (Freiheit = Freedom, get it?).
He was 34, happily married with two children. I was 20 and in love with my boyfriend. He never tried to proposition me (unlike Chris, who then sulked like a teenager when I turned him down) but we could feel an undercurrent of danger, the euphoria and sadness of meeting a soulmate from whom we have to part very soon. It was like alighting for a moment on the brink of the clearest, most beautiful blue pool, but peering within we could see muddy depths.
All you need is more choice? To both of us, the choice was never about being selfish. This was about a lot more than a fleeting passion between two young people.
It was that breath of freedom spreading across Europe that caught us up in its magic. It was the thrill of cross-cultural understanding, of future possibilities, of finally being able to live the lives we wanted. To me, he represented my German-speaking childhood home. To him, I was the generation for whom freedom would arrive at the right time and who could go on to change the world. We dismantled the walls in each other’s mind before the destruction of the physical wall in his home town.
We only kissed once, when we parted. He got on the train to Berlin and, within a few days, was one of the thousands who thronged at the border crossing and danced on the Wall. I returned to the news blackout of Bucharest, but within a few weeks, was one of the thousands who chanted: ‘The Army’s on our side!’ in University Square. I like to think that we channeled the passion we felt for each other at a personal level into political passion.
Where have thirty years gone? And how can people want to go back to building walls in our minds and hearts?