Swiss in October: The Basel Bank Robbers

Alex Capus: Almost Like Spring (Fast ein bisschen Fr√ľhling)

When I picked up this book (for £1-2 in a second-hand bookshop), I had no idea that it was based on a true story. I had read Capus before Рa series of vignettes about his town and neighbours Рand I knew he liked to blend fact and fiction, so I just thought it was a stylistic choice to have quotes from witnesses, flash-forwards to people who are not even aware that events took place where they now live or work etc. It is far less experimental than that: while based on thorough research, it also imagines some of the back story and motives of the characters caught up in the events. Capus reportedly spent 15 years writing this novel Рhe wanted it to be factually accurate but also funny, sad and film-like. He certainly manages to infuse this rather violent tale with much charm and sprightliness.

The author himself makes the comparison to Bonnie and Clyde, the notorious American bank robbers who operated at roughly the same time, in the 1930s. In this case, we have Kurt Sandweg und Waldemar Velte, born on nearly the same day in the depressingly grey industrial region of Wuppertal in Germany. Friends since childhood, joined at the hip despite their differences: Kurt is tall, gangly, friendly ‘like an Austrian’ and can talk the hind legs off a donkey, Waldemar is short and taciturn, serious ‘like a Finn.’ Or so Dorly Schupp describes them when she first catches sight of them.

Dorly is a shop assistant at the Globus department store in the centre of Basel and the two young men walk into her life on the 13th of December 1933, looking to buy a record. They have left Germany, disgusted by the rise of Hitler, and were looking to make their way to India or America. However, they are continually thwarted in their attempts to go further afield – the paperwork is impossible to obtain, America has its own millions of unemployed people – and so they end up in Basel, carrying a gramophone as a souvenir from their stopover in Paris.

Waldemar (and possibly Kurt as well) falls for Dorly and invite her to walk with them on the banks of river. Dorly may be young and pretty, but she is not a naive youngster, and she wants to make sure that nothing untoward happens, so she invites her friend Marie Stifter along. It is this Marie Stifter, who only joins them once or twice, who links the factual part of the story to the fictional one. She is the woman who later becomes the grandmother of the narrator, who is not quite Alex Capus but someone close enough. She is from a village in the Basler hinterland, where everything seems so warm and welcoming, and all the neighbours know each others’ business. Marie is ‘promised’ to the best bachelor in the village, Ernst Walder, the narrator’s grandfather, but their is not the real love story.

What the women do not know, of course, is that the young men are on the run, having held up a bank in Stuttgart and killed the manager. They seem pleasant enough and keep postponing their departure, buying more records and going out with Dorly. On the 5th of January they rob another bank in Basel in a stolen car and with stolen pistols. Once again, they leave with barely any cash but having shot the director and the cashier. The inept duo then try to leave the region, but fail to make it into Spain, fail to board a ship in Marseille. Waldemar writes lovelorn letters to Dorly, wondering if there is any place for the three of them to start over:

All this hassle with passports and visas and transit permits and timetables, this eternal money changing… it goes on forever and what’s the upshot? You realise that the world is one big fortress. A prison, an inescapable Alcatraz… If you really wanted to escape and not simply run from one cell into the next, you’d have to go further afield, much further – to the last blank spaces on the map. There are always some somewhere, but it’s a peculiarity of blank spaces that you can’t get to them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be blank.

So they come back into the lion’s mouth, return to Basel, meet Dorly again. They are wanted men, of course, although no one is sure of their identity yet. As the police operation noose tightens around them, they try to escape, shooting more people in the process. When Dorly finds out what her new friends are capable of, she gives them up to the police and it ends in a predictable bloodbath as they try to avoid capture.

The Wanted Notice, warning that they are dangerous and armed.

The final chapters are in many ways the most poignant. We get to see what the newspapers of the time thought of this, the most notorious bank robbers ever to grace Swiss soil. The left-wing papers call them Nazis, the right-wing ones call them nasty immigrants and anarchists, the Catholics think they are manifestations of evil. Only one young girl shows any compassion for the criminals:

We grew up in the same era as them and have had to experience the world as they did, a world that gives young people no space, no scope for making the most of their talents, and has only one thing to offer: unemployment… Isn’t it understandable that they should turn their energy against that society?

We also get to see the reactions of their families and friends when they hear about their criminal lives and their violent death. Most poignant of all, we hear that Dorly had a hard time following the event, considered either an accomplice or a traitor, and booed by both sides. Her trail goes cold after December 1942, when she was supposed to move to Geneva. She never showed up there, however.

Capus said that, after publishing the novel, he would sometimes have people coming up to him and telling him they knew some of the people involved or had worked at Globus at the time themselves etc. He is still waiting, he says, for an old lady to stand up in the audience at some point and say: ‘But I wasn’t working in the record section of the store!’ There are some reports that she changed her name and lived to a ripe old age, married and had children, but I’m not sure whether we can believe that. Besides, isn’t the wistful and mysterious ending rather more beautiful?

Funnily enough, after reading the book, I realised that I had read Caroline’s review (she lives in Basel so is even closer to the locations described there), but had forgotten the bit about the ‘true story’ part.

WWWednesday 16 October 2019

It’s been a long time since I participated in this weekly meme, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you‚Äôll read next?

Currently reading:

Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – A dark thriller about suicide pacts of people who belong to a cult – even if they don’t know they do. I studied so-called cults for my Ph.D; it’s a term that I really objecto to, because, as the author quotes right at the start of the book: ‘Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organsiation, you join a political movement, and you join with people that you really like.’ For #Orentober reading with Orenda Books.

Sébastien Meier: Le Nom du père (The Name of the Father) РTo continue with my Swiss in October reading, another francophone Swiss writer, despite his Germanic sounding name, with a psychological thriller.

Always in the background: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (the German edition) – trying to read one entry per day, although it usually ends up being 4 days’ worth of entries in one day and then a break.

Just finished:

Alex Capus: Almost Like Spring – part of my Swiss in October reading. The story of the two most notorious bank robbers in Basel or perhaps the whole of Switzerland. I had no idea this was based on a true story and was about to give it brownie points for the stylistic innovation of making it sound like it’s a documentary, with quotes from eyewitnesses and people reminiscing after the event.

Camil Petrescu for the #1930Club

Reading next:

Nicola Barker: The Cauliflower – From one guru to another; and finally a woman writer after a very male-centred week of reading.

China Mieville: Embassytown – because I think it might be a nice counterpoint to the Meier novel, with crime fiction as a pretext for uncovering so much more.

Looking ahead at November, because some of my blogger friends so kindly reminded me that it will be German Literature Month, I have the following possibilities in mind:

Things to Look Forward To: Livre Sur les Quais 2015

lelivresurlesquais2014Last year I waxed lyrical about the great atmosphere of this book festival for readers and authors in Morges, on the banks of the bonny Lac L√©man. This year it’s taking place between the 5th and 7th of September and I’ll be heading there again for what promises to be a great line-up and a chance to enjoy the last days of summer in congenial surroundings. There is a giant book tent where you get a chance to buy books and get them signed by your favourite authors, as well as a number of panel discussions or Q&A sessions with authors.

From actualitte.com
From actualitte.com

This year too, you’ll find the usual suspects of Swiss and French-speaking writers, including old favourites of mine (or those I look forward to reading), such as: Metin Arditi, Joseph Incardona, Yasmina Khadra, Martin Suter, Alex Capus, Emilie de Turckheim, Tatiana de Rosnay, Alain Mabanckou, Timoth√©e de Fombelle.

From website of the festival.
From website of the festival.

They will be joined by a diverse bunch of writers who also speak English (not all of them write in English): Esther Freud, Jonathan Coe, Louis de Berni√®res, Helen Dunmore, Amanda Hodginskon, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley, Elif Shafak from Turkey, Petina Gappah from Zimbabwe, Gabriel Gbadamosi from Nigeria, Frank Westerman from the Netherlands, Paul Lynch (the Irish writer rather than the Canadian filmmaker). Also present: several members of the Geneva Writers’ Group who’ve had new books out recently, writers I’m proud to also call my friends, such as Michelle Bailat-Jones, Susan Tiberghien, Patti Marxsen. The Geneva Writers’ Group will also be hosting a breakfast on the boat from Geneva to Nyon to Morges, a wonderful opportunity for readings and Q&A sessions with some of our authors.

Boat rides on Lake Geneva, www.genferseegebiet.ch
Boat rides on Lake Geneva, http://www.genferseegebiet.ch

 

This year’s guest of honour is poor, battered Greece, a reminder that art and creativity can nevertheless survive like wildflowers peeking through cracks in austere cement. Here are a few of the writers I look forward to discovering there:

  • crime writer and masterly painter of the Greek crisis,¬†Petros Markaris
  • Christos Tsiolkas – Australian of Greek origin, who needs no further introduction
  • Ersi Sotiropoulos: an¬†experimental, avant-garde writer, whose novel about four young Athenians musing about their future, Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees, has been translated into English. She is currently working on ‘Plato in New York’, described as a¬†hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry.
  • Yannis Kiourtsakis – suspended between France and Greece, novels exploring the heart of displacement and emigration
  • Poet Thanassis Hatzopoulous, whose wonderful words (translated by David Connolly) I leave you with:

DAEMON
The clacking of prayers persists
And the rattles of the temple where
The beauteous officiates

And yet no one
Can bear this beauty, the touch
Everything glows and fades incomprehensibly
By itself carrying so much desolation
And charm peculiar to verbs

The seasons rotate under the veil of rhythm
And the people who bear them
Return more vigorous full of freshness and breeze
Conveyed in their steps
Dripping their tracks

And whatever life gives them they return
So equally the soul’s universe is shared
Rendering in radiance whatever
In at times its own way avaricious
Nature intends

Yet beauty has no justice
All turmoil, prey to chance is meted
And finds peace.

Men Being Depressed Again

I never understood why the Almodovar film was called Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, because my experience with literature has been that it’s mainly the men who are moody, depressed, angry and existentially musing about it. I’ve been reading a lot of books by women lately, but, as coincidence would have it, the three last ones I read were by men in the throes of what might be called a mid-life crisis, even if they are not all middle-aged. And they all take place in different countries: Switzerland, Sweden and Russia.

NachbarUrsAlex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs (My Neighbour Urs)

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In this charming collection of apparently harmless little stories about small-town life in Olten, Switzerland, Capus shows us the gnashing teeth under the veneer of politeness. Yet he does it with humour and grace, laughing both at himself and his fellow citizens. This is a gently mocking midlife crisis.

The narrator (or author, the two are very tightly linked) has five neighbours, all called Urs. Actually, there are six of them, but one doesn’t want to appear in a book. They all gather in the square outside their houses on balmy summer evenings and chat about random this and that, and sometimes even about the important things in life. Such as love and divorce, a sense of belonging, wanting to move away, welcoming foreigners … and the differences between ¬†the German- and French-speaking Swiss.

‘Your writing thingy, which you call work…’
‘What about it?” I ask.
‘Nothing,’ says Urs. ‘I suppose it must be some kind of work, that what you do. Don’t mind me, I didn’t say anything.’
‘But?’
‘It’s all right, let it be.’

This book was published in 2014 and has not been translated, but several of his earlier books have been translated into English, such as ‘Leon and Louise’, ‘Almost like Spring’ and ‘A Price to Pay’. You can find review of his other books on other blogs, such as Stu Jallen, Lizzy Siddal¬†and¬†Izzy Reads.

kimnovakHåkan Nesser: The Summer of Kim Novak (transl. Saskia Vogel)

‘It’s going to be a difficult summer’, says Erik’s father at the start of the summer holidays in 1962. He is referring to his wife, Erik’s mother, who is slowly, almost noiselessly slipping away from them with cancer in hospital. But it’s about much more than that, of course, in this heart-breaking account of the coming of age of two 14-year-old boys. They get to spend the summer at the lakeside cottage, together with Erik’s older brother, Henry, former sailor and now freelance journalist, trying to write his first novel. A rural summer made up of small triumphs, everyday pleasures and benign neglect.

It’s a time of learning to cook, of daydreaming about gorgeous women resembling the actress Kim Novak, attending village fairs, reading and raiding the neighbours’ woodpile to build a floating dock. Those long summer days in Sweden, when time seems to stand still, and the adolescents learn about love and lust and violence. It’s not a thriller by any stretch of the imagination, unlike Nesser’s previous work. Instead, it is closely observed, nostalgic without becoming twee, and reveals a stiff upper lip that will resonate with British readers (or other Northern Europeans). Why do I say it’s about midlife crisis? Because it’s the older Erik, now in his forties, who remembers that fateful summer and The Terrible Thing, with all its consequences on his family, friendship and himself.

pushkinhillsSergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills (transl. Katherine Dovlatov)

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You are forewarned from the outset: this is the story of a failing Soviet writer, Boris Alikhanov, sinking into alcoholism, whose wife wants to divorce him and emigrate together with their daughter. In an attempt to patch his life together (or perhaps to get away from it all), he becomes a tour guide on the rural estate of revered national poet Pushkin, now a bustling tourist site. There, he encounters eccentric characters galore, learns how to massage facts and figures to please the tourists, and sinks ever deeper into despondency, indifference and impotent rage. It could be interpreted as the powerlessness and despair of artists having to live under the Soviet system Рand not just artists, but the whole population. However, lethargy does not mean lack of feeling, and there is something very poignant about the stylistic restraint of the last few pages of this slim volume.

Every characters seems to have some kind of deadpan humour and are ready to interject philosophically when they are not busy frying their brain cells with drink.

I sat by the door. A waiter with tremendous felted sideburns materialized a minute later.
‘What’s your pleasure?’
‘My pleasure,’ I said, ‘is for everyone to be kind, humble and courteous.’
The waiter, having had his fill of life’s diversity, said nothing.
‘My pleasure is half a glass of vodka, a beer and two sandwiches.’

Boris himself is self-critical, often all too painfully self-aware, but incapable of taking bold steps and either submit to the party line or else become a truly great dissident writer. His wife reproaches him:

Even your love of words – your crazy, unhealthy, pathological love – is fake. It’s nothing more than an attempt to justify the life you lead. And you lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements. With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least…’
‘Do you honestly think he’s a good writer? Perhaps Jack London’s a good writer, too?’
‘Dear God! What does Jack London have to do with this?!…’

You can find a very thoughtful review of this book, complete with a small debate about how to translate colloquialisms, by Guy Savage.

From sciencetimes.com
From sciencetimes.com

In conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with a little depression, and I enjoyed all of these books. But it always amuses me to see that men’s nervous breakdowns and alcoholic outbursts are associated with great literature, while women’s are treated with disdain and relegated to mere ‘domestic concerns’.

P.S. I’ve just finished a fourth book in the same vein: Pascal Garnier’s ‘Boxes’ and I really think I need a change of decor. Expect some funnier or lighter or just different next reads.

New TBR Reading Challenge – and Rereading

I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.

The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.

I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.

So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with C denote crime fiction titles, W is for woman writer)

1) Books in French:

P1030248All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.

Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C

Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit Рthe alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues  C

Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz РUkrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain  C

Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories

Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil Рfinally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade Рplus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid.   C W

2) Books in German: 

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Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord  Рthird case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude   C

Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland

Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe Рthe dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species  W

Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation ¬†W

Friederike Schm√∂e: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events ¬† C ¬†W

3) Books on ereader

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Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale

John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet Рthe return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa  C

Sara Novic: Girl at War Рchild survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later  W

Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel Рdebut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize  W

4) Other:

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Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)

Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship

Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night Рthe first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America ¬†W

Wendy Cope: The Funny Side Р101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope)  W

Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).

The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?

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Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night’; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Fair in Geneva – Salon du Livre

On Thursday this week I had the pleasure of attending the Geneva Book Fair. This is a large annual event (by Swiss standards), but it attracts little attention internationally because it is geared towards French speakers (lots of foreign books, but they are all translated into French; I couldn’t find even Swiss German writers in the original) and has few big name invitations. Although I did get to see Linwood Barclay there last year.

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It is not a trade fair and many of the standholders and publishers say they don’t even sell that many books. (Hmmm, book prices in Switzerland may have a little to do with that – 25-30 CHF for a paperback is very common, about¬†¬£20 or $30). Instead, it’s very much about raising awareness, the general public and education. Small wonder it was teeming with schools, children running around doing treasure hunts or learning how to draw BD characters, or toddlers reading with their parents.

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And it’s not just about books – there were many stands dedicated to associations (book clubs and writing groups), universities, arts and crafts, health and well-being, cookery workshops and wine-tasting. There are plenty of outlets for your own creativity.

Artworks made out of old books.
Artworks made out of old books.

The Factory: each container had a different theme for visitors' own contributions: a 6 word story, your favourite books, print your selfie, write your bio etc.
The Factory: each container had a different theme for visitors’ own contributions: a 6 word story, your favourite books, print your selfie, write your bio etc.

I minded the Geneva Writers Group stand for a few hours. We improvised a bit with the decorations, but next year we will create something truly magical! I had no books to display myself, of course (maybe next year or the year after?), but I was surrounded by talented members of the group who did: Katie Hayoz (I’ve reviewed one of her YA books here), science-fiction writer Massimo Marino and YA/NA author Olivia Wildenstein. And I’m not just saying that because they are nice people…

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In the afternoon I wandered around, bumping into Max Cabanes again and telling him I should pay him royalties for using his drawing as my avatar. The BD illustrators are a wonderful bunch, and I also enjoyed talking to storywriter De Groot (creator of Leonard, about a mad inventor, one of my boys’ favourites) and Batem (illustrator of the magical Marsupilami).

How to draw a Marsupilami...
How to draw a Marsupilami…

When I said it was aimed towards French speakers, I did not mean to imply it is not international. On the contrary, there are many special interest country and regional sections, ranging from the youngest canton of Switzerland (Jura) to Arabic nations of North Africa, Brazil to Armenia. Each one organises panel discussions or author interviews on small stages. But there are so many events competing for your attention that not all get the audience they deserve. I got to see Dominique Sylvain making some very witty and wise observations about writing crime fiction in front of just 5-6 people: in Lyon, she’d have been mobbed!

Russia was the guest of honour this year. Here's a selection of cookery books in Russian.
Russia was the guest of honour this year. Here’s a selection of cookery books in Russian.

The African Salon.
The African Salon.

And, of course, you can't forget Switzerland itself...
And, of course, you can’t forget Switzerland itself…

20150430_111211
The Philosophy Section. Unfortunately, the session I was looking forward to here, ‘What Use Is Poetry?’, was cancelled or moved.

I was restrained in my book purchases, because most of the French authors I wanted I can get cheaper across the border in France. I did find a book by Alex Capus in German¬†Mein Nachbar Urs (My Neighbour Urs) – which I couldn’t resist, since I have a very good friend with that name. Besides, I’ve been meaning to read Capus for ages. There was also an English-language bookshop that was selling off their remaindered books at very low prices, so I bought a one-volume selection of prose by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber & Faber, and the deliciously gossipy looking¬†Writers Between the Covers. The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes and Cads¬†by McKenna Schmidt and Rendon.

Apologies for the shaky photographs: I hate taking pictures with my mobile phone!