The Eighth Life (for Brilka) – Nino Haratischwili

It took me five weeks to read this long Georgian family saga, although in my (and the book’s) defence, I should say that I was reading it alongside other books. In the German edition it is 1275 pages long, but it was neither the length nor the style that put me off. The fact that the book has been shortlisted for various book prizes at roughly the same time as that other huge tome Ducks, Newburyport might make you fear that this is a worthy but difficult work, that you have to steel yourself to read.

The truth is, it is anything but that.

It is accessible, fun, entertaining, both harsh and sentimental, even soap-opera-like in parts. For those unfamiliar with the history of the 20th century in Russia and the Soviet Union, it is quite educational as well. I was reasonably familiar with Soviet history, but was captivated by the (often lyrical) descriptions of Georgian cities and landscapes, of their parties and food. It really struck me what a tortured relationship Georgia has with its bigger neighbour (and ruler) – very much like a marriage to an abusive partner whom you love and hate, envy and fear in equal measure. Sadly, it is impossible for a country to ever escape from such a bully – you are indeed trapped by your geography, and geography determines so much of your history.

Perhaps the main reason why I did not become fully immersed in the book and read it to the exclusion of everything else is because I always struggle with family sagas. There are so many characters to acquaint yourself with. I find myself growing to care about one or the other (I particulary liked Stasia and Christine, and Kostja’s story more than his character), so I struggle to move on to another character when the author decides to bring them into the limelight. I can cope with that happening over a long series of books, like in the Poldark saga or the Cazalet chronicles, but it feels too abrupt a change over the course of one volume, however lengthy.

The other thing that somewhat marred my enjoyment of the book were the passages that sounded as if they’d been cut and pasted from history books. I know it’s difficult to show the passage of time smoothly when you are skipping ahead a few years. Occasionally, Haratischwili gets this telescoping of time right. I particularly enjoyed her description of a Soviet childhood – a long list of memories, many of which I share as well: the limited range of toiletries, the Tiger balm, tinned fish and condensed milk being the only things in the shops, severely abridged films such as Angelique or the Count of Monte Cristo (and Bollywood), the difficulties and therefore pride in accessing Western music and so much else. Although Haratischwili is considerably younger than me (and the sisters Daria and Niza who grow up during that time), she evokes all the sights, smells, hardships and small joys of our locked-in world. I also enjoyed her occasional political rants – for this is Niza telling the story of several generations for the benefit of her niece Brilka – and what she is trying to tell is the story of the ‘little people’, the forgotten voices, rather than the story of wars and kings and leaders.

However, it’s those moments when the narrative pace slows right down that I enjoyed most. I found certain individual scenes or chapters most memorable: Stasia finding refuge in the mansion of an older cousin in Petersburg as she tries to find her husband during the civil war which followed after the 1917 revolution. Christine showing her face at a masked ball and unleashing fatal lust in a historical figure that I’m pretty sure is supposed to be secret police chief and notorious sexual predator Beria. Kostja’s single moment of bliss with the much older and wiser Ida just as war breaks out again. Ida meeting another Ida, a blind orphan and pianist, during the siege of Leningrad.

I’m really glad I read this rich tapestry of woven lives and feelings. I cannot say that it’s quite as amazing as I was led to believe, but there are certain scenes or passages that I will return to (and that I’ve marked with post-its). I can also see what the German critics meant about the idiosyncratic way in which Haratischwili uses the German language – it’s more flowery than most contemporary German novels, and certain storytelling elements (such as the curse of the secret hot chocolate recipe or the ghosts who appear in the garden) are more common in Turkish, East European or Middle Eastern literature. The piling on of bad luck and suffering on generation after generation of the same family is perhaps also less frequently seen in German literature. Yet I can see some resemblance to the Buddenbrooks, although in The Eighth Life external events play the major role on the characters’ lives, rather than their personal psychology or middle-class values.

I read the book in the original German, but it has been translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin and published in a beautiful edition by Scribe. You can read Lizzy Siddal’s enthusiastic review of it here.

 

#WITMonth: Lucy Fricke’s Middle-Aged Thelma and Louise Story

Although I am tagging this with #WITMonth, German author Lucy Fricke has not been translated into English, even though she is no writing newbie. The novel Töchter (Daughters) is her fourth and I’d heard quite a rumble of excitement about her previous one, Takeshi’s Skin. I had Daughters shipped over from Germany following rave reviews not only in the German press but also on the blog of Kaffeehaussitzer, who always keeps me abreast of the German publishing scene. So let me be upfront about it: I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it deserved quite such high accolades.

It is a road trip novel about two indomitable female friends, who at some point describe themselves as Thelma and Louise, except they are neither young, nor sexy, and not even oppressed. Martha and Betty have been friends for 20 years, ever since they first moved to Berlin. Both of them come from broken homes with disappearing fathers, and each of them has developed a different mechanism for coping with the trauma. Martha has married and is trying desperately to conceive via IVF before her 40th treatment (after which IVF is no longer available in Germany). Meanwhile, Betty avoids any commitment by being the proverbial rolling stone and rents her flat out in gentrified Kreuzberg via AirBnB while she travels.

Martha’s father, Kurt, with whom she has reached an uneasy truce in his old age, suddenly announces that he has a terminal illness and has made an appointment at a Swiss clinic to curtail his suffering. Could she please accompany him on his final journey? Martha, who has been unable to drive after a horrible accident some years previously, and who thinks this is a terrible idea anyway, appeals to her friend Betty. So the strange trio set off in Kurt’s clapped-out old car and this grim-sounding road trip soon takes on farcical proportions.

Author photo, credit Dagmar Morath.

As they wind their way through crappy hotels and appalling petrol station snacks, they are subjected to Kurt’s anti-feminist rants and then a sudden change of plan. Before he dies, Kurt would like to see once more his very first love, whom he lost to an Italian man on the shores of Laggo Maggiore. Betty has her own agenda for going back to Italy, since she bears a certain nostalgia for her Italian ‘Dad’, the one man from her mother’s endless collection of ‘uncles’ and ‘step-dads’ who was ever nice to her as a child.

While the themes of the story can be easily identified as friendship, parenthood, forgiveness and death, and the final message is the somewhat trite ‘you need to find joy in life itself’, this goes a bit further than typical chick lit. There is quite a bit of self-mocking going on, for one:

We spend three, four decades talking about men and then we talk about illnesses. What a waste of life!

Secondly, the story is (refreshingly) not about finding the perfect man and partner, but about making peace with fatherly imperfections and moving from being a daughter to being a full-grown woman. Beneath the comic moments and sharply satirical observations, there is an underlying sadness. The author also lampoons the road movie she is imitating in the book:

It’s not as if a road trip is necessarily full of surprises, the promise of love or sex or crime at every road station. That only happens in films and books, a coming of age story on the fast lane. In real life, things happen slowly. In real life, we spend years grieving over a single heartache, while on the big screen any loser, any clown can save or destroy the world within a couple of days, as long as he (sic!) believes in himself and his power.

Scene from Maren Ade’s film ‘Toni Erdmann’.

I think the reason this has been so rapturously received in Germany is perhaps that there is not much of a literary tradition there for Bridget Jones style humour. I actually liked it more than Bridget Jones, mostly for the social satire aspects. However, among the worthy, dramatic German women filmmakers such as Margarethe von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms of the New German Cinema period, there has always been a bit of a comedic tradition with directors and writers such as Doris Dörrie and, more recently, Maren Ade. I think this book fits in that slot – and can easily imagine it filmed (and perhaps improved in the process).

 

Birthday, Berlin and Books

Or ‘The Three Bs that made me very happy this weekend’.

Can heartily recommend: celebrating with your two oldest and kindest friends who have also just turned the same age and still have pictures of you giggling together from your youth, feeling loved, dancing to 99 Luftballons and Falco’s Der Kommissar (songs from our childhood), watching football with German friends unhappy about the way their team played but relieved that they won nevertheless, home-cooked party food, lots of dancing, partying with former Olympic rowers, walk along the banks of the Tegeler See at sunset, walk through the tourist-thronged streets of pretty much anywhere in Museumsinsel area and not feel like a tourist, stop at the biggest bookshop in the city with a friend who has the same literary tastes as you do, not mind the rain, discover your friend lives just opposite the house where Christopher Isherwood stayed during his year in Berlin.

To be honest, the Berliners didn’t understand much of the song lyrics either – it’s very Viennese dialect and humour.

Not so good: forgetting your mobile phone at home, so I couldn’t take any pictures [but I have the memories!] And having your flight delayed by two hours on the way home.

Wonderful book haul, though, especially for hand luggage only standards.

And great reasons for acquiring each one of them. From top to bottom:

  1. Pascal Mercier: Perlmann’s Silence – Swiss writer who was professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg where I spent a year during my Ph.D. The topic of the novel is also one that is perpetually fascinating to me: academic conference, plagiarism, professional identity and murder…
  2. Daniel Kehlmann: Measuring the World – not as well known as more recent works by Kehlmann which have been translated since, this story of German scientists Humboldt and Gauss, and their obsession with time/space displacement.
  3. Ilinca Florian: When We Learnt to Lie – Romanian film director and writer, this is her debut novel, about a Romanian family during the last few years of Communism, a society about to transform profoundly.
  4. Joachim Riedl: The Genius the Meanness – Austrian writer, who studied in Cambridge and has written a lot about Jewish life in Vienna. This book, originally published in 1992, was one of the first to question the golden shimmer of fin de siecle Vienna and show its tarnished side as well. This was a present from my Viennese friend, who shares my critical love relationship with that city.
  5. Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall – have wanted to read this one for ages, but not in translation. I don’t know why I wasn’t aware of its existence before, since it was first published in 1963 (and so has nothing to do with the Berlin Wall), well before I was born, but I only started hearing about it about 4-5 years ago. Perhaps the ultimate dystopian novel about human isolation.
  6. Julia Franck: The Midday Woman – I was impressed by Franck’s book West and when I asked my friend what else I could read by her, she said that this novel is perhaps one of her favourite novels of the past decade or more. This one has apparently also been translated into English by the much-missed Anthea Bell as The Blind Side of the Heart.
  7. Eva Menasse: Quasi-Crystals – Another author I really liked (having read some short stories by her). I was thinking of acquiring her prize-winning historical novel about a Jewish-Catholic mixed family in Vienna (entitled Vienna), but then I found this book about a woman at 13 different stages in life. Turns out my friend knows the author personally (not just because Vienna is a small town and she is of the same age as we are, but their sons went to the same school in Berlin too).

 

 

 

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 denote crime fiction titles, 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 – the alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues  C

Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz – Ukrainian 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 – finally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade – plus 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  – third 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 – the 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 Schmöe: 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 – the return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa  C

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

Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel – debut 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 – the 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 – 101 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?