Incoming! Books Added to TBR

I was going to start a self-imposed book buying ban, but am postponing it to the New Year. So I am making the most of these last few weeks before it kicks in! So what have I acquired this week?

Orenda Books very kindly sent me Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz to review. I somehow missed out on reading this German author’s first book translated by Rachel Ward, but dived straightaway into this second one. I was instantly smitten. It is to crime thriller what jazz music is to classical music. An unconventional, refreshing voice, one that I haven’t heard in German crime fiction since Arjouni, and I don’t mind at all crime taking second place in this novel. Full review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover, but I can’t resist sharing one of those little throwaway sarcasms which litter the book:

It always strikes me that tourists in Hamburg look completely different from tourists in Munich or Berlin… Perhaps they think Hamburg is already on the North Sea, although that’s a good thirty to fifty years off yet.

The next two are books I purchased following some Twitter and blogging discussions. Several of the bookbloggers I admire mentioned that Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved was one of their favourite reads, so I found a second-hand copy of it to see what all the fuss was about. 

Karen, from Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings, is already extremely knowledgeable about the Russian Revolution, but she asked for some reading recommendations to get up to speed about French revolutions (they had several, although we are mostly familiar with the 1789 one). My personal favourite revolution – can one have such a thing? (other than the one I lived through in 1989, about which I am conflicted anyway)- is the 1870 Paris Commune. So I starting reminiscing about what I had read on the topic and ended up ordering two books, one of which has already arrived. Donny Gluckstein’s The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy is the Marxist interpretation of it, but, after years of indoctrination, I like to think that I know how to read beyond the ideology to the actual history. The book which is still on its way is Paris Babylon by Rupert Christiansen, which looks much more about the conditions which led to the Franco-Prussian war and the decadence and poverty which led to the Paris Commune.

Can’t resist an archive photo from the Commune de Paris, the barricade at Rue de Castiglione in one of the poshest central locations in Paris.

While waiting for my friend to show up to go to the RADA show on Friday, I popped into Waterstones in Gower Street and couldn’t resist two of those tiny Penguin Modern Classics. Fernando Pessoa’s poetry in I Have More Souls Than One, which led to a discussion with the bookseller if he should embark upon Pessoa (my answer: ‘Absolutely, but dip in and out rather than read it all in one go.’) and four short pieces by Anais Nin in The Veiled Woman.

The final book was an impulse buy from the Vintage Penguins which are strategically placed just opposite the cheap and cheerful Modern Classics. The title comes of course from Alice in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle’s song, and is used as an epigraph for the book:

“‘ Will you walk a little faster?’ said a whiting to a snail,

‘There’s a porpoise close behnd us, and he’s treading on my tail.'”

It’s a broad comedy about London theatrical life and trying to navigate your way through it. I’ve never heard of Noel Langley, but it appears he had several plays produced in the West End in the 1930s and later moved to the US, where he wrote screenplays, most notably for The Wizard of Oz. He moved from South Africa to England in the mid 1930s and I can’t help wondering if his experience as an ‘outsider peeking in and trying to fit in’ informed this book about two young and innocent drama students let loose in the big bad theatre world of the time. A light read for dark days!

Favourite Translated Books of the Year 2017

I am trying to find an alternative to the ‘Top 10 Reads’ of the year, mainly because I find it difficult to stick to such a small number. So this year I will be listing some of my favourites by categories (although not giving them awards, like Fiction Fan does so wittily) – and I won’t even stick to numbers divisible by five. I am not counting any of the books I read in the original languages – those will form a separate category. Interesting sidenote (and perhaps not coincidental): only one of the books below was on my Kindle rather than in paper format. Perhaps those read electronically don’t stick as well to my mind?


A rather dashing young Miklos Banffy.

Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Katalin Bánffy-Jelen & Patrick Thursfield)

The last book in translation but one of the most memorable of the whole year. It took me a while to get going with it. I had a number of false starts, i.e. I’d pick it up, put it down after a few pages and then not read it for a couple of weeks, by which point I had forgotten all the complicated names. But if you give it your full attention, it is the beginning of a wonderful historical saga that gives you a real insight into a certain place and time.

Ariana Harwicz: Die, My Love (transl. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

Short and punchy, knocking you out with its breathless verve and barely concealed fury, this story of a woman feeling completely out-of-place in her life and suffering from some kind of trauma or depression will leave you reeling.


The instantly recognisable silhouette of Pessoa.

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet (transl. Richard Zenith)

A diary or essay with so much to say about the human condition in general and the creative artist in particular that I know I will be reading it for the rest of my life.

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky)

Possibly my favourite non-fiction book of the year and one that I have been recommending to everyone, including my Russian friends. It also makes an appearance on Shiny New Books on my behalf.

Antti Tuomainen:  The Man Who Died (transl. David Hackston)

My favourite translated crime fiction read of the year, it has almost slapstick situations, a lot of black comedy but also a sad inner core about a dying man losing all his illusions about the people around him.


A rather cheeky chappy, this Bohumil Hrabal…

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains (transl. Edith Pargeter)

Another example of broad farce interspersed with real depth and tragedy, with surreal flights of fancy.

Ricarda Huch: The Last Summer (transl. Jamie Bulloch)

I loved the naive ideology of the privileged vs. the uncompromising voices of the oppressed who are resorting to violence – an endless debate even nowadays.

Seven favourites out of the 36 books in translation that I read over the course of 2017 (a total of 130 books read so far). So less than a third in translation (although this number would go up to about 60, so nearly half, if I added the books in other languages). What is a bit shameful is that my reading is so Eurocentric, although this might have something to do with my #EU27Project, which I  have been engaged in somewhat haphazardly this year. My only consolation is that I seem to have done a better job of it and been slightly more prepared than those negotiating Brexit…

However, in 2018, I hope that my translated fiction horizons will be broadened by my subscription to the Asymptote Book Club, about which many of you will have heard me chirruping, tweeting and even shouting! The very first title is still a top secret and I will keep my mouth firmly zipped up, but I will give you small clue: it is not European.

A good quartet [or a good book] is like a good conversation among friends interacting to each other’s ideas. (Stan Getz)





Fernando Pessoa – Portugal – #EU27Project

It’s impossible to read The Book of Disquiet in one go, or to attempt to review it in any coherent way. It’s a book of reminiscing, musing, poetic flights of fancy, philosophical fragments, a writer’s diary, the journal of an anonymous little clerk, descriptions of Lisbon, it’s nothing and everything at once, and he scribbled in this ‘notebook’ practically every day from 1912 until his death in 1935. Pessoa is now considered one of the foremost Portuguese poets, part of the modernist movement, but during his lifetime he wrote mainly for himself, and most of his work was published posthumously. To make matters even more complicated, he also wrote as numerous other ‘people’, created persona as easily as I create carrot cake (and then consume it). The Book of Disquiet is a collation of his manuscripts, an approximation of what he intended, since many notebooks or pieces of paper were undatable. So the editors and translators have chosen to group things roughly by themes.

I read a few pages at a time, and I underline almost every second paragraph. It’s the kind of book you want to use as inspiration for your own writing, a way to push forward your own thinking. There are many riffs on the anguished soul of an artist, which will appeal especially to writers. It reminds me of Kafka, but with a more dramatic Latin flavour, when he talks about his ‘paper-thin skin stretched over nerves too near the surface, notes playing scales on the awful, inner piano of memory.’  Let me just share some quotes with you, to give you a flavour:

My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tambours I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.

That is the central error of the literary imagination: the idea that other people are like us and must therefore feel like us. Fortunately for humanity, each man is only himself and only the genius is given the ability to be others as well.

The moment I find myself, I am lost; if I believe, I doubt; I grasp hold of something but hold nothing in my hand. I go to sleep as if I were going for a walk, but I’m awake. I wake as if I slept and I am not myself. Life, after all, is but one great insomnia and there is a lucid half-awakeness about everything we think or do.

Statue of Pessoa outside his favourite cafe in Lisbon, from

Yes, we will all pass, everything will pass. Nothing will remain of the person who put on feelings and gloves, who talked about death and local politics. The same light falls on the faces of saints and the gaiters of passers-by, and the dying of that same light will leave in darkness the utter nothingness that will be all that remains of the fact that some were saints and others wearers of gaiters.

Now, as many times before, I am troubled by my own experience of my feelings, by my anguish simply to be feeling something, my disquiet simply at being here, my nostalgia for something never known, the setting of the sun on all emotions, this fading, in my external consciousness of myself, from yellow into grey sadness.

It sounds a bit like a highly condensed version of Virginia Woolf’s diaries without all the social gossip and updates on her printing. However, it’s not all self-centred musing and philosophical speculation. There are some wonderful descriptions of the city at dawn and at sunset, observations of passengers on the trams, characters on the street and in the office. There are literary references and political anger, but above all an attempt to display ‘an aesthetic of indifference’.

For this is what I found in these diaries (and what appealed to someone living through the current period): an expression of tedium and malaise, almost nihilism, as befits the times he was living in. Even though he never witnessed the Second World War, he did live through several years of the Portuguese military dictatorship and developed a sense that the world belonged to ‘the stupid, the insensitive and the disturbed’ and that the only ones who succeeded were the ones equipped with ‘amorality, hypomania and an incapacity for thought.’

I can’t say I’ve finished reading this book. The despair and darkness is only occasionally balanced by wonder at the beauty of nature or alleviated by a humorous aside. There are many who believe that the Portuguese concept of saudade, a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent loved something or someone, is untranslatable. But in Romanian we have the very same concept dor. So there is something that instinctively speaks to me in Pessoa’s work (and yes, he has been translated into Romanian and is a bit of a cult figure there).  It’s a book I will dip into again and again, certain in the belief that I will always find something new which will incite me to explore my own beliefs and thoughts.

In fact, the recent attempt by an independent publisher to present these random jottings in a medium that more closely mirrors the intent of the original, on recycled pieces of paper and in a box, is probably the best way to read them (see above). If you can’t afford that, then Serpent’s Tail has a lovely new complete edition.