It’s amazing how the colours on the covers of the most memorable books I read in the second part of the year also match my mood during that period: much more colourful, even pinkish and coy, although normally I am not a fan of pink. Yes, this was the most optimistic part of the year.
In my teens I was (sort of) diagnosed with bipolar disorder: for me (everyone is slightly different) this typically manifests itself as periods of intense activity, almost manic energy and optimism which has no bearing to reality (the ‘up’ periods), to be followed by far longer periods of utter hopelessness and despondency (the ‘depressive’ periods). I was given lithium to even out these wild mood swings, but that made me feel like it was benumbing me, so I lost all of the positives of being on a high and only very slightly had the edge taken off my depression. Over the next few decades, I learnt to manage my moods with a cocktail of home-made and medical remedies, and over the past decade, I thought I had moved more into depression (partly sparked by external circumstances).
However, this year the manic period reasserted itself with a vengeance, perhaps because I travelled to see my parents for the first time in 2.5 years, or perhaps because I briefly thought I might like to have a relationship again. It was kind of lovely having the energy back, even though I knew about its dangers and limitations. For a couple of months, I felt invincible: I survived on very little sleep, had so many new ideas, wrote love poetry (which I had not done since high school) and so many other things, submitted regularly, took my boys on a trip to Brighton, went to plays and exhibitions, joined the Society of Authors, attended the Translation Day in Oxford, reconnected with old friends, investigated a possible collaboration with a theatre in London and so much more. Helped by the wonderful weather and by better news on the creative front, I was able to handle the growing anxiety about my mother’s incipient dementia or my cat Zoe’s state of health (she had started vomiting far too frequently, but we had not yet diagnosed her with cancer).
All this is reflected in my top reading choices. In April, I chose to focus on Romanian writers, because I spent two weeks in Romania, although some of the reading was entirely serendipitous since I just happened to come across Martha Bibescu’s journals set just before and during the Second World War in my parents’ house. I was also smitten with the two plays by Mihail Sebastian that I had not previously read (one was seldom performed during Communist times, perhaps because it talked about lies being published in newspapers, while the other was unfinished at the time of his death). I also reconnected with the work of surrealist, absurdist writer Urmuz, whose work was published largely posthumously when he committed suicide at the age of 40 and translated a couple of his short pieces (they are all very short, more like flash fiction, even a novella in flash). One of them, I am happy to say, will appear in Firmament, the literary journal issued by Sublunary Editions.
May was all about life in Berlin, often written by expats. The only one that impressed me and which gave me a bit of insight into the history and society of Berlin was The Undercurrents by Kirsty Bell, but I was intrigued by a different kind of expat, namely the anthropologist, in Mischa Berlinski’s rather epic, occasionally uneven but fascinating look at the ‘outsider going native’ Fieldwork.
June was my month for catching up with French writing, and I’d forgotten how eloquent and impressive Simone de Beauvoir can be in describing women’s experiences. Gael Faye’s Petit Paystaught me so much about Rwanda and Burundi and trying to integrate into French life. I also enjoyed books that fell outside my original reading plan (I’ve always been flexible about allowing others in): I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed the relatively simple story about a love affair set in Japan, Emily Itami’s Fault Lines and yearning for love and companionship in Seoul in Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City.
As I said, I might have been susceptible to love stories that trimester, even though mine never got off the ground (with the wisdom of hindsight, I’m inclined to say: thank goodness it didn’t!).
Finally, one crime novel that stuck with me because it was so post-modern and different and sly: True Crime Story by Joseph Knox. The danger with these seasonal summaries (rather than those done by genre, for example), is that crime fiction often gets sidelined. So, several crime novels might have made my ‘best of the year’ list among others of its genre, but they might struggle to compete with Simone de Beauvoir or Mihail Sebastian.
While my little household was visited by bronchitis, tonsillitis, RSV, coughing till your rib cage hurts and other such delightful guests, I needed something less demanding to read for German Literature Month. So I turned to the comedic delights of The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan, translated by Annie Rutherford and published by the wonderful V&Q Books.
Lord and Lady McIntosh are renting out parts of their dilapidated estate in the Scottish Highlands, but it all reaches crisis point when a group of investment bankers descend upon them for their off-site teambuilding exercise in the depths of winter, while their housekeeper has broken her arm, a peacock is running riot, and a snowstorm is on its way. Rather than descending into a Golden Age murder mystery (although at times the participants might be tempted to wring each other’s necks), it becomes a comedy of manners with moments of high drama and farce.
It was indeed a fun read, showing that Germans do have a healthy sense of humour: a satire about corporate teambuilding, British plumbing and draughty homes, as well as the renowned British love for animals which lives alongside their love for hunting. It is not at all vicious satire though: every one of the characters is redeemable, despite their obvious flaws. There is depth behind each stereotype: the iron lady boss, the suck-up, the older nerd and so on.
As the translator says in her note at the back of the book, ‘the idea of a German book set in Scotland and translated “back” into English was clearly a novel one’. But why would that be the case? We read books by American and British authors set in foreign countries ALL the time and many of them do not even depict expats: Donna Leon, Victoria Hislop, Alexander McCall Smith, take a bow!
The latest example of this is Berlin by Bea Setton, yet another book in the growing list of ‘expats moving to Berlin in the hope of starting with a blank slate and finding you can’t outrun your own bad habits and impulses’. [Rest assured that when I move to Berlin, I intend to continue the very boring middle-aged life that I have here in the UK – just with more freedom of movement and time to dedicate to literary pursuits.] It forms a perfect counterpoint to The Peacock, as it is almost entirely self-centred rather than focusing on a larger cast of characters. Written in the first person, with an unreliable narrator named Daphne – or, if we’re feeling generous, a narrator who is deceiving herself as much as she is attempting (and often succeeding) at deceiving others – we explore nearly a year in the life she is attempting to create for herself, albeit half-heartedly, in Berlin. The only thing she seems to be serious about is German grammar and vocabulary: she fails to establish any meaningful relationships, she sponges off her wealthy and far too unconcerned parents and therefore doesn’t have to work for a living, and she drifts along, a voyeur to her own life, not even decadent enough to come apart at the seams via clubbing, drugs and wild sex life (like the other Berlin-set expat novels I have read over the past year). The only thing she seems obsessive about is her running and controlling her eating, and inventing various subterfuges to disguise her eating disorder from her acquaintances.
The kind of book that made me feel old and grumpy, as I lost patience with the ‘first world problems of young people from privileged Western backgrounds today’.
This very bare-bones review is my third for #GermanLitMonth, and I hope to write one more on the biography of Marlen Haushofer. Meanwhile, I would recommend The Peacock as a delightfully escapist but not saccharine read – although the author underestimates how much the English investment bankers might drink!
Quite a fun month of reading: 16 books, eight of them were in the ‘expats writing’ category, and three were preparatory reading for my French in June challenge. Two were for my book clubs (Good as Dead for the Virtual Crime Book Club, Love in the Big City for London Reads the World). The remaining three were just random fun reads from the library. I knew it was going to be a month with few books in other languages (only four, and all French), as the theme was Anglo expats.
So here are the links to the longer reviews and/or one line comments.
Norman Rush: Mating – anthropological debates and the crushing of utopia
Can I draw any conclusions from this multitude of expat accounts? Virtually all of them had a distinctive tone – equal parts arch and blasé. This worked best when the authors or narrators showed an actual interest in the place and ‘the natives’, rather than use them merely as backdrop for personal drama. I can see how an external observer (supposedly impartial, although not always so) can bring a different perspective to things, but remain unconvinced that these stories might have been better told by the locals. The exceptions are Christopher Isherwood (who is ferocious about the expats and the English as well) and Kirsty Bell, although I did enjoy the fun Berlinski and Rush were having with dismantling dearly held anthropological beliefs and discourse.
I will be reviewing the three French books in June, so here are the rest of the bunch:
Susan Walter: Good as Dead – ethical dilemma, Hollywood ending, fun but forgettable
Joanna Cannon: A Tidy Ending – in-depth character study and great sleight of hand
Sang Young Park: Love in the Big City, transl. Anton Hur – raucous, energetic, poignant, sad, funny and sweet
Gillian McAllister: Wrong Time, Wrong Place – great initial idea, but such banal and bland prose
Emily Itami: Fault Lines – wasn’t sure about this at first, but now think it fits really well with one of my French books, so will review in tandem with that
My social calendar is starting to fill up, although I try not to go more than once a week into London.
Sixth anniversary of Royal Borough Writers, the writing group to which I belong – a real lifeline when I returned from Geneva, feeling bereft without a writing group; at first sceptical whether it would be entirely helpful, since I was the only one writing poetry or crime fiction, but it has been the most supportive and fun community, and has contributed significantly to my mental balance during lockdown, when we met online
Out of the Wings Theatre in Translation Spring Kindlings meeting – such a great community of translators and theatre fans, combining readings and discussions of what we would like to see in the future (hint: more festivals and communities of translated plays)
Society of Authors New Members lunch – so excited to meet poet Joelle Taylor, winner of the 2021 T.S. Eliot Prize, whom I had previously only known and admired via an online masterclass. Also got to meet Yvonne Bailey-Smith, whose book The Day I Fell Off My Island deserves to be known on its own merit, rather than by the fact that the author is Zadie Smith’s mother.
International Booker Shortlist Readings – it was a bit ambitious to have readings and a brief Q&A with all of the authors and translators in just 1.5 hours, some of them couldn’t make it so were on video, and I do wish the questions had been less obvious, more imaginative – nevertheless, it was wonderful to hear from them all, a really strong shortlist this year. I had already ordered the winner, but haven’t read it yet.
Pandemic Fiction – you can’t go wrong with the two Sarah queens of contemporary literature: Sarah Hall and Sarah Moss, plus I feel very close to Oana Aristide, with whom I share the Romanian and Greek connection (also, slightly, the Swedish one). Their ‘pandemic’ novels were all written at different stages of Covid. Oana had finished writing her novel and was editing (so incorporated some of the obsession with handwashing and disinfecting, which she hadn’t predicted). Sarah Hall started Burntcoat on the first day of the first lockdown, as a way of making sense of the whole situation and coping with uncertainty – filling in the gaps with fiction helped. Sarah Moss started hers in November 2020, when the initial sense of solidarity and helpfulness was falling apart. I especially loved the quote: ‘Readers or publishers tell us it is too soon for pandemic novels – but who’s going to tell us when it is time? Real life is a mess, there is not narrative structure to it, so fiction gives us maps to navigate the chaos and unfairness of it all.’
Only seven films watched (online) this month, all rather living up to my reputation as a lover of grim, cheerless or brutal stuff (as one of my friends claims – she refuses to go to any more films with me unless she picks them). However, I think most of them also have that dark humour which really resonates with me (and which I hope I have in my writing). The only one I found so depressing that I couldn’t watch it to the end was Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st, but I thought his earlier Reprise was funny, satirical and knowing.
I watched no less than three films about enigmatic women – La Collectionneuse, Morvern Callar and Zero Fucks Given – well, enigmatic if you are a man trying to ‘explain’ these women or appropriate their thoughts and feelings. Haydee in the first of these films is simply a young woman out to enjoy herself and not giving a damn about anyone else’s opinion, but the two others are grieving in their own inimitable way. Virtuoso performances!
Le Weekend seemed to me more vicious than heartwarming, despite its ‘happy ending’, but I liked the Bande A Part references (might try to learn the dance myself). The last film was a pastiche of a genre mash-up of Gothic horror, erotica, Hitchcock thriller The Love Witch – profoundly silly but wonderfully cheering on a lonely evening.
This is an interesting book about cultural differences, white privilege and domination in post-colonial Africa, but it’s also a love story told from the point of view of a young(ish) brainbox of a female anthropologist. She is completely insufferable and elitist, and has built up a cynical and manipulative shell around her heart, but she can also be very funny and at times quite vulnerable and oddly innocent.
The narrator’s voice is so loud and unique in all its contradictions and complexities, that it’s hard to believe it was written by a man in his late fifties – closer to the age of the narrator’s paramour in the story. It’s an ambitious endeavour – but works well.
The unnamed narrator finds herself somewhat adrift – she has had to abandon her Ph.D., her relationships and friendships are unfulfilling, she does not want to return to the US, she feels twice as intelligent as most of the people she meets (fluent in several languages, well-read, able to quote literature and philosophy at the drop of a hat), and she has quite strong opinions on the types of people she meets in Botswana.
There are more whites in Africa than you might expect, and more in Botswana than most places in Africa… Parliament works and the courts are decent, so the West is hot to help with development projects, so white experts pile in. Botswana has almost the last hunter-gatherers anywhere, so you have anthropologists like me underfoot. From South Africa you get fugitive white and black politicals… And then Botswana is a geographical receptacle for civil service Brits excessed as decolonisation moved ever southward. These are people who are forever structurally maladapted to living in England. This is their last perch in Africa…
The novel is set in the 1980s, so South Africa is still under the apartheid regime, and the Boers and spies play a part in the narrative. The narrator’s thoughts about love and sex are equally unfiltered:
Love is strenuous. Pursuing someone is strenuous… Of course it would be so much easier to play from the male side. They never go after love qua love, ever. They go after women. And for men love is the distillate or description of whatever happened with each woman that was not actually painful in feeling-tone… I don’t know if getting love out of a man is more of a feat of strength now than it used to be or not, except that I do: it is. It’s hideous. It’s an ordeal beyond speech.
Despite her cynical pronouncements about love, she has not quite lost hope of finding a worthy partner – and the one she has decided is worth pursuing is Nelson Denoon, a fellow academic on the cusp of getting divorced, who has established a utopian female-led community called Tsau somewhere in the desert. She embarks upon a somewhat dangerous solo crossing of the desert to find this closed community and is not above resorting to all sorts of lies and subterfuge to be allowed to stay in the community and win this man over.
I had to realize that the male idea of successful love is to get a woman into a state of secure dependency which the male can renew by a touch or pat or gesture now and then while he reserves his major attention for his work in the world or the contemplation of the various forms of surrogate combat men find so transfixing… Equilibrium or perfect mating will come when the male is convinced he is giving less than he feels is really required to maintain dependency and the woman feels she is getting more from him than her servile displays should merit.
My utopia is equal love, equal love between people of equal value… Why is it so difficult? Assortative mating shows there has to be some drive in nature to bring equals together in the toils of love, so why even in the most enlightened and beautifully launched unions are we afraid we hear the master-slave relationship moving its slow thighs somewhere in the vicinity?
The bulk of the book is set in Tsau, which of course is not as idyllic a community as it describes itself (and Nelson believes it to be), and covers her burgeoning relationship with Nelson. The contrast between ideal and reality is present in both their community and in their love affair. I did feel this part of the book got a little bogged down in detail and in the lengthy conversations between the two main protagonists (about right versus left-wing politics and economics and all sorts of topics). Nevertheless, I loved the dry asides – and there were bound to be some on virtually every page:
Even when a woman gets her own order authorized, like Mother Teresa, it’s women who end up doing the cooking and cleaning and nursing and little detachments of men who get to do the fun proselyitzing.
This was an example of not knowing you were having a peak experience at the time you were having it and mistakenly assuming that it was the forerunner of many equal experiences waiting for you onward in life.
…if I died there, no one in his right mind would regard it as a tragedy. I would be in the category of an aerialist falling to her death. Or I would be entitled to the species of commiseration people get who show up at parties on crutches but who got injured skiing at Gstaad… It would be sad but not that sad.
My bet is that, all things considered, no woman would have voted to have the washhouse, the stores house, the central kitchen and the Sekopololo offices located at the top end of a long though gentle ramp. We inhabit male outcomes.
The book was more interesting when it dealt with the tensions and subtle shifts in power within Tsau, and issues of race and gender. Despite the narrator’s understanding of Setswana language and culture (and often trying to educate Nelson about it), most of the couple’s references remain resolutely Eurocentric. The author did spend five years in Botswana, but you know my feelings about ‘it’s not the length, it’s the intensity’ of experience, as I know many expats who spent over twenty years in a place and still didn’t really understand the culture.
I liked the fact that Norman Rush did not feel the need to dumb down his ideas or his prose – this is a very dense piece of work, full of historical and political detail, full of literary and philosophical allusions. It also contains very frank descriptions of sex – although the true seduction here is of two minds in conversation. It feels like a novel in which the author has, just like his creation, poured out the best of himself – everything he had.
This unusual book won’t be for everyone: it has an overabundance of style and content. I suppose the best way to think about it is that the narrator is making field notes – that indispensable element in the anthropologist’s toolkit, which is at once an observation of the external – the people around you, the rites and habits and patterns – but also of the internal: how you interact with your surroundings and how you are changed by what you observe. Rush seems to adopt the ‘impressionist’ style of ethnography, i.e. holding back on his own selection and interpretation, and simply giving us the unvarnished writings of the narrator, leaving it to the reader to make of it what they would. I understand why he does that, but I do wish he could have exercised some editing on occasion.
I wanted to incorporate everything, understand everything, because time is cruel and nothing stays the same.
Freshly out of college, American Sally Jay Gorce has the good fortune to have an understanding uncle who will pay for her to spend two years in Paris as long as she promises to tell him all about her adventures there. She has such a thirst for life (reminding me of Sylvia Plath’s letters home) that she freely partakes in everything that Paris has to offer: parties and drinks, art and artists, the odd spot of acting, and lovers galore. Ah, the joys of being able to gallivant about in foreign countries without having to work!
The plot, such as it is, is about Sally Jay navigating her way through a selection of potential or actual lovers, both in Paris and later in Biarritz: suave older married man Teddy, theatre director Larry Keevil who is a bit of an enigma to her, earnest painter Jim Breit, hearty Canadian Bax. She is too modern to complain or flinch, but she is half-aware that she is being taken advantage of, and underneath it remains all quite keen to be taken seriously.
I don’t think I can do a thorough review, but I do want to share some quotes, because above all, this book is very funny and wittily written. A lot of the one-line zingers reminded me of Dorothy Parker.
It’s amazing how right you can be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.
The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way?
I reflected wearily that it was not easy to be a Woman in these stirring times. I said it then and I say it now: it just isn’t our century.
This is how Sally Jay describes her boring American cousin John:
Presidential candidates, Senatorial investigations, juvenile delinquency – he held firm views on all of them, views which needless to say he was entirely willing to share with one and all, and if the thought ever struck him that there might possibly be people at the table who were uninformed or even just plain uninterested in these peculiarly American problems, it never slowed the steady flow nor quelled the mighty roar.
She does not spare Paris and the Parisians from her sharp tongue:
The French more than anyone – the French alone – have mastered the fine art of sweating out a drink. I’ve seen them time and again in that cafe, hat, coat, gloves and scarves to the eyebrows, sitting in attitudes of imminent departure – and sitting there all night, the same stemmed glass before them.
How I hated Paris! Paris was one big flea-bag. Everything in Paris moved if you looked at it long enough. There were tiny bugs working their way into the baskets of ferns on the wall and a million flies buzzing around my table. In fact, all those shrewd, flashing glances upon which the Parisian’s reputation as a wit is almost entirely based, are motivated by nothing more than his weary, steady need to keep on the bug-hunt.
You have to admire Sally Jay’s gutsiness, determination and innate optimism, but at times her chaotic life catches up with her and we get glimpses of a confused and vulnerable young girl, which makes her very endearing. Readers have compared her to Holly Golightly, but this is no ‘manic pixie girl’ invented by a male author, but the creation of a female author with plenty of wry asides for women of all ages.
If I could only figure out if it was Larry I was in love with, or just love, then I’d be all set, I told myself. It had certainly seemed to be Larry that morning, especially after that scene at the Dupont, but I was so sure of it then, why not now?
What happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy snap and it all seems so once-over-again? What’s going to happen to me five years from now on, when I wake in the night (or can’t sleep in the first place…), take a deep breath to start all over again, and find that I’ve no breath left?
Sally Jay describes herself as a dud avocado – all shiny and exotic on the outside, but possibly not very nice on the inside, and I felt that this could apply both to her experiences of life in Europe, and also to the book itself. A lot of superficial charm and exuberance, but a little of it goes a long way. Perhaps that was precisely the point that the author was making – that these ‘stars in their eyes wannabe artists and expats’ are pretentious, unreliable and vacuous, puncturing the myth of 1920s Golden Age Paris?
Different time and different city, but not all that dissimilar from Other People’s Clothes – except that the main protagonist here is far more charming and amusing. The story itself felt not only meandering (and virtually plotless), but also slightly hollow. However, it’s really all about how the story gets told. I loved Sally Jay’s voice, resilience and humour. This is a perfect ‘mood booster’ kind of book.
This month my reading will be focused very much on (mainly but not exclusively Anglo) expats. I don’t know if it’s my own plans for eventually moving to Berlin that have made the subject particularly pertinent and visible, or if it’s a publishing trend, but quite a few recent books seem to be dedicated to life in Berlin. The city that no one wanted to move to before 1990 and which then became super-trendy (and increasingly expensive). It’s the trendiness, a young person’s view of Berlin, that I found in the first three books I read: they talk about relatively recent periods in the town’s history rather than the more edgy grunge and squatter heaven of the early 1990s. None of these books struck me as being truly preoccupied or interested in the city itself – instead, these people were looking for their own selves or for connection or love or to fuel their addictions. They all made me feel tired and old.
Oscar Coop-Phane: Tomorrow Berlin, transl. George Miller, Arcadia, 2015.
Three young men, each with a complicated back story (and the first part of the book dwells perhaps a little too much on their back stories before it brings them all together in Berlin), find themselves couch-surfing and partaking in the crazy 24 hours drinks, drugs, sex and club culture of 2000s Berlin. Tobias is originally German but has spent most of his life outside his country of birth; abused by a family member in his childhood, he has now turned to prostitution and fleeting affairs until he discovers he has AIDS. Armand rebels against his bourgeois family by becoming an artist, and leaves Paris for Berlin when the great love of his life doesn’t quite turn out the way he envisaged it. Franz thought he could pull himself up by his bootstraps by excelling at his studies, but discovers he will always be looked down upon by high-class Germans, so he starts dealing drugs instead. I wasn’t entirely convinced we needed three main characters in this quite short novel (170 small pages) – their experiences and voices did not seem that differentiated.
With graphic descriptions of drug-taking and of homosexual and heterosexual encounters in grimy toilets, it is very much a ‘hedonism as a desperate cry for escape from one’s own trauma’ sort of book – and at times it almost succeeds in convincing me of this. The chapters alternate between the three men, who finally meet up and become friends – or at least, fellow consumers of the Berlin nightlife circa 1998-2008. You might almost describe this as Trainspotting with a more glamorous backdrop. There are some acute observations about Berlin (the author lived there for some time), but perhaps not nearly enough to give me a strong sense of place.
What saves the book from just being a blow-by-blow account (pun intended) of random encounters and excessive clubbing are the moments of reflection. Armand keeps a notebook, and we are often privy to Tobias’ innermost thoughts. Every now and then we get some passages about the city itself, which might be the author intervening or could be written by one of the characters – these passages were my favourite to read:
The streets are wide and people walk around, as though nothing could happen to them, as if here more than elsewhere people take time to live. People are a bit skint but they get by. The soups are good. People smoke in the cafes since it would be crazy not to. They work away on a laptop at some obsession. You sense Europe is around you, all its languages mixing and answering each other.
This contrasts a bit with Tobias’ first impressions of the city when he arrives fresh from Paris:
The sky’s so grey here. No sun or clouds. And buildings, so shiny and low! It’s a far cry from Baron Haussmann’s embellishments. Everything looks like it has a use. It’s sad all the same, a city where everything is useful. What about poetry, where do they put that? Maybe they have little parking lots for sonnets and hangars and factories for ballads.
I particularly enjoyed the description of winter in Berlin:
For several weeks, the street has lost its old appeal. Its heart is frozen, its surface covered in snow… No one panics; people here are used to putting on boots, taking a shovel to clear their doorways. It’s as though a parallel life is activated: bikes and tables outside cafes are put away, hats and tights are taken out, daylight becomes unfamiliar, there are invitations to people’s flats for soup or a cup of tea.
But there simply weren’t quite enough of those passages. Instead, we witness the car crash of people sabotaging their own lives.
Calla Henkel: Other People’s Clothes, Sceptre, 2021.
Calla Henkel is an American writer and playwright/director living in Berlin and in her debut novel she shows us the hedonistic side of Berlin from the point of view of two American students on their year abroad. Rather than a ‘running away from’, this is a novel of ‘running towards’. Zoe and Hailey are art students in New York, who are keen to reinvent themselves, desperate to be hip and memorable in a city that doesn’t seem to be that welcoming to them. Their art classes are virtually non-existent, but they manage to find a sublet in a grand old building where nothing seems to work properly. So they spend their days trying to track down the cool crowd and their nights being refused entry to Berghain.
Drug-taking, drinking, bulimia and sexual encounters are abundantly described, but there is an added twist to keep the story from becoming a wearisome episodic account. They suspect that their landlady, a prolific novelist, is spying on them to write a novel about them, so they decide to put on a show for her – give her something to write about. Set in 2008/9, the novel is full of references to the Amanda Knox case, with one of the main characters following it quite obsessively, so it’s no surprise when the novel takes a darker turn… but perhaps a little too late for my patience.
While the dialogue is often very funny and compelling, it feels to me like the author is trying to squeeze too many strands into this novel, or else couldn’t quite figure out what, if any, genre it was supposed to fit. It has it all: social media feeding frenzy, life as art, female friendships, envy and jealousy, gay and straight relationships, partying lifestyle, obsession with celebrity, being a babysitter in a wealthy family, plus the chilling feeling of being spied upon. If the men in Coop-Phane’s novel filled me in equal measure with disgust and pity, these girls annoyed me with their self-absorption, their spoilt and pretentious attitudes. Yet in both cases, I was pained to see how disinterested they were in getting to know the life of real, everyday Berliners outside their drug-taking or artistic bubble.
Which makes me wonder if the backdrop of Berlin was essential – it felt like this story could have taken place in any other big city with a lively nightlife. Occasionally, however, there is a rather more vivid description to convey the atmosphere:
The dance floor was filled with languages and English accented in French, Italian and others I couldn’t place, everyone expertly stepping to electronic music in quick sharp movements, all dressed in layers of black… A Venezuelan girl starting a gallery. A Croatian dancer making work-out tapes with artists. A spiky-haired guy in a black hoodie talking about Marx… It reminded me of the bar in Star War, all those outer-space creatures from planets I had heard of grinding on each other and smoking cigarettes.
Amy Liptrot: The Instant, Canongate, 2022.
At least this book has no aspirations to be fictional, but is a memoir of the year that the author moved to Berlin. After ten years of living in London and descending into alcoholism and drug-taking, Liptrot had reconnected with nature and herself in Orkney in her much-lauded first book The Outrun. However, after a while the island isolation becomes too much for her and she goes to Berlin on a whim, without speaking the language or a job or place to stay.
I didn’t choose Berlin for a particular reason… You are free to invent your identity in a new city. I want to act like I’m still in my twenties, maybe get a nose-piercing and an undercut, start beng polyamorous, making scultpures. I’m attracted to what I think of as Berlin style: Cabaret-via-Cold War, bicycles, minimal techno, black clothes.
Ah, there come the clichés again! The elements which resurface in both of the books above. Liptrot too goes to Berghain, but she writes about it with more lyricism than the others. She compares it to diving into the sea.
Entering that place is like entering a huge echoing cliff cave and, once my eyes have adjusted to the dark, finding it full of rock doves and black cormorants, on shadowy ledges, darting past. I’ve found a complete ecosystem. Five hundred people or more, a bloom of jellyfish, are drifting with the tide of music… I am reminded of the exquisite illustrations of Ernst Haeckel, the German naturalist and philosopher who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, made detailed studies of sea life, including technical drawings of jellyfish and anemones, beautiful and weird.
You might think that she would fall once more prey to her demons in this partying city, but Liptrot is in her thirties rather than her twenties. Although she longs to find love, she is still fascinated with the natural world around her. Even in the big city, she finds (or rather, hears about but doesn’t see) raccoons, and goes birdwatching. She manages to be poetic about traffic islands. And, for a few short months, she does find love – or so she thinks. And when she discovers it wasn’t quite what she hoped for, she is disarmingly frank about the vulnerable aftermath.
Yet once again I find that odd lack of curiosity about the ‘natives’ of the place where she has chosen to spend a year – even though her boyfriend is German. Many of the activities she pursues in Berlin are either solitary ones: going to swimming pools, walking, trying an immersion tank; or else sticking to the English-speaking foreign community. Even museums: it’s only in the last few weeks of living in the city, that she actually visits any museums – obviously, I don’t expect everyone to want to explore the same things about a foreign city that I do, but it did strike me as odd. Yet the author seems to be quite aware of the privileges of the ‘digital nomad’ anywhere or nowhere culture.
There is growth of this ‘sublet’ or ‘freelance’ culture: people always keeping their options open, skimming the surface of other countries, digitally fragmented, never committing… Move between the cool districts of international cities and the currency and time zone change but the people are the same. The only language you learn is how to ask for a coffee and the Wi-Fi password.
If I had no prior knowledge of Berlin and read just these three books, it might put me off moving to that city. I would consider myself too old and uncool. But I have friends who have grown up there while the city was divided, or who moved there in 1995 and raised a family there, so I know it can look and feel very different too. I have just embarked upon a more thoughtful memoir of living in Berlin, which looks at the layers of Berlin (both geological and historical ones) – and that is much more my speed (pun intended). More about that in my next review.
There is a quote that does the rounds of expat circles: a man once said that when he dies, he wants to come back as an expat wife. It’s an understandable (if tactless) remark. There is a perception of an expat life of privilege in exotic locations, on a generous salary and benefits package, sitting around sipping cocktails and with nothing else to do except hatch intrigues.
While there may still be some such ‘expat bubbles’ out there, in most cases the reality is quite different. In many cases the so-called trailing spouse (most of them still remain women in this day and age, although there are some men too following the careers of their wives) has had to give up her own career, is lonely, frustrated, resentful and isolated. The expat packages have been reduced, they do not speak the language and they have to adapt to a completely alien culture, where even doing the supermarket shopping or installing a telephone line becomes an epic battle.
This is the case with Anna, the self-destructive protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau, set in a suburb of Zürich. Anna is an American woman who thought she had chosen order and reliability when she followed her Swiss husband back to his home country. Instead, she feels dead inside. Whether we can empathise with her or not, Essbaum describes Anna’s circumscribed lifestyle, her feeling of entrapment, very clearly. Anna is only just learning the language. She doesn’t have many friends, certainly not among the Swiss, and her banker husband is cold and distant. She doesn’t drive, so she is dependent on trains or on her husband’s or mother-in-law’s willingness to give her a lift.
Anna was a good wife, mostly… It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time… From Pfäffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led… the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans… Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days…
Visitors to Switzerland revel in the quaint, chocolate-box prettiness, tidiness and order, but, just as there is a malaise beneath the politeness and well-functioning machinery of Japanese society, there is something sinister about the myriad of rules and regulations in this Alpine country. Outwardly, Anna follows her rules: goes to German language classes, picks her children up from school, dutifully goes to see a psychoanalyst to deal with her depression. She is infuriatingly passive and accepting, a passenger in her own life.
Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon Rule. Where the wind blew, she went… it grew even easier with practice.
But of course one will suffocate under all those rules at times. Swiss youths rebel through drug-taking and suicide; Anna rebels by having reckless flings. The book has been compared (even by myself) with those other novels about adulterous women Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but Anna is much less guided by passion and idealism. If anything, she is far too self-aware, self-critical and analytical. Every phrase she learns in German class, every discussion with her analyst is dissected and applied to her life.
Love’s a sentence. A death sentence… The body would become ravaged. And the heart will become broken… ‘To become’ implies motion. A paradoxical move toward limp surrender. Whatever it is, you do not do it. It is done to you. Passivity and passion begin alike. It’s only how they end that’s different.
Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, her risk-taking reaches endemic proportions… and then tragedy strikes. I won’t say more, except that Essbaum is a poet and her fragmented prose style may not be to everyone’s taste, while the descriptions of sex are anything but poetic. I was initially sceptical of just how relevant the German class or psychoanalyst discussions were to the main story, but they provide surprising analogies to the banality of marital breakdown and adultery. I personally loved the mix of barbed observational wit, philosophical ruminations and poetic despair. In some ways, it reminded me of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I liked this one more, even though it’s longer. It has a well-defined story arc, it’s raw and emotional and very, very honest, with none of the cold detachment of Offill’s book.
I’ve mentioned previously how excited I was to receive this book for review from Penguin Random House. A great addition to my collection of novels about expats – and a timely one, given that I am currently writing a novel about expats. Below is a list of my personal favourites among this type of novels, and the countries in which they are set. The protagonists may feel at first like fish out of water but end up being forever changed by the countries they live in. Word of caution: none of them seem to end well!
Is it true that artists, composers and writers who live abroad are more creative? There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for it: Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Stravinsky, Nabokov… The list just goes on and on. And of course it’s received wisdom that travel broadens the mind.
In 2008-2009 a flurry of articles appeared, mostly co-authored by Maddux and Galinsky, examining the links between living abroad and creativity. They talk about the dangers of allowing yourself to be limited by a single culture or worldview:
To the extent that culture consists of a set of preexisting, routinized, and chronically accessible ideas, it
may limit the generation of creative thoughts.
Multicultural living experience, meanwhile – and by that they mean not just a tourist briefly visiting a place, but actual immersion for extended periods of time in another country – has the following consequences:
1) it exposes you to many new ideas and concepts – the larger your pool of ideas, the more likely you are to come up with new combinations of ideas
2) you recognise that the same form or appearance can have different meanings in different contexts – sensitivity and ability to distinguish between surface and depth
3) even when you go back to your own culture, you may be more curious and willing to access unconventional knowledge
4) you become more comfortable with addressing contradictory thoughts, values and beliefs, become able to integrate them into your own worldview
In other words, living abroad enhances the ability to ‘think outside the box’, to find novel approaches and solutions to problems, to notice and tolerate differences, to create new insights. All of these elements are important in the creative process, going far beyond merely artistic creativity.These findings are unlikely to surprise us: they make intuitive sense. The more diversity you experience, the more you are confronted with different values and languages, the richer your personal repository of sounds and pictures with which to decorate your new canvas.
Of course, there are some methodological and conceptual problems with the way this research was conducted. The first, most obvious caveat is that correlation does not prove causation. Perhaps more creative people are naturally more drawn towards living abroad. Perhaps they have a hard time fitting into their own culture and feel its limitations all too acutely. Secondly, it is difficult to measure creativity – the tests the researchers used had more to do with creative problem-solving rather than real-life artistic performance.
What I did find interesting is that the authors claim you do not gain this richness of experience merely through travelling. This is where I would like to see more research. Can it be true that superficial impressions, no matter how strong for sensitive artistic types, are not as valuable? In other words, it’s not all about motion and change, but also about stopping, digesting and resting. About allowing those changes to trickle through and forever change your interior landscape.
And yet, I wonder if a well-travelled artist might not achieve a more profound understanding of a particular culture than someone who has lived there a while but never made an effort to understand, connect and integrate. I can think of some expats who only saw what they expected to find in their host countries. I can think of people who never stepped outside their bubble, and for whom living abroad only served to reconfirm their own beliefs and values.
As a serial expat myself and a big fan of thrillers, I had high expectations of Chris Pavone’s debut novel ‘The Expats’ and it did not disappoint.
The story in a nutshell: Katherine is a typical American expat in Luxembourg, dissatisfied with her life, missing her sense of purpose and past career, but unsure what she wants. Or is she? Her husband Dexter is a good-natured computer geek working on security issues for banks. Or is he? They meet an attractive, yet strangely mismatched childless American couple, who seem keen to befriend them. Or are they? Well, as it turns out, no one is quite what they seem in this page-turner, with more plot twists than I have had coffees. I woke up during the night and adjourned to the guestroom to finish reading it, which is unusual behaviour indeed. Continue reading Book Review: ‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone