It’s time for #6degrees Well, it was time at the weekend, but I left it a bit late. Start with the same book as other wonderful readers, add six books, and see where you end up! With thanks as always to Kate from Books Are My Favourite and My Best for hosting.
The starting point this month is The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Although it came out in 1969, it was hugely popular two decades later with my colleagues studying English at university. We had only just discovered postmodernism and were vying with each other who could come up with the strangest reads. I personally was never a huge fan of Fowles and felt maybe I was somehow deficient compared to my classmates.
Another historical metafiction type of book that I did enjoy at about that time was A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I’m not sure if it will bear rereading, but at the time the dual narrative and obsession with both research and love fitted my lifestyle extremely well!
A book about literal possession, by demons, is The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. The film is of course now far more famous than the book, but I was forbidden to watch the film as a child, so I read this instead (in a cheap version with a still from the film as a cover, I seem to remember).
Cheap nasty editions abounded in my childhood, since I got a lot of my books at bring and buy sales at school or at my father’s workplace. Another book that I read in a particularly flimsy edition, with almost transparent pages, was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It made a profound impression on my youthful mind as to how unfair and hypocritical society was back then. Little did I know…
One author I keep confusing with Hawthorne is Washington Irving, so I had to double check to see which one of them wrote the rather lovely Tales of the Alhambra, which I bought at the Alhambra in Granada when I was visiting there with my parents at the age of 10.
Staying in Spain for the moment, and that memorable road trip with my parents, I haven’t read the next book, but it looks fascinating: an account of that brief period of collaboration between the three major monotheistic religions on Spanish soil. Bit of a mouthful of a title, but it says it all really: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal.
Another road trip that I undertook with my then adventurous parents was to Germany, weaving easily between East and West (relatively speaking, because my father had a diplomatic Romanian passport). I was completely bowled over by Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s extravaganza and beloved palace, even more so than by Versailles. A writer associated with both the Prussian and the French kings was of course Voltaire (and he ended up in disgrace with both). Depressed after discovering that Frederick the Great was not so great after all, Voltaire wrote his famous Candide, a cynic’s cry against the world of mindless optimism. Where is Voltaire to write about Brexit now?
So a bit of a nostalgia fest this month, delving into my childhood and youth, from Lyme Regis to the London Library, the United States to Spain and Germany by way of France. Where will your random mental connections take you?
I am linking this to the German Literature Month initiative, which has been run so successfully for 8 years now as a collaboration between Lizzy and Caroline. Yet it is a rather odd one to include here. Although Fred Uhlman was German, he emigrated from Germany in 1933 (just like his protagonist) and wrote this book in English. Yet its theme is very German and the author’s nostalgia for the landscapes of Württemberg and for a defunct way of life (and innocence) is so evident, that I do think it fits here.
It is a very slim volume, almost a short story, about the friendship between Hans Schwarz, son of a respected local doctor, and aristocratic newcomer to the school, Konradin von Hohenfels. Dazzled by the sophistication of the newcomer and the effortlessly golden lifestyle he represents, Hans and his initial hero worship harks back to other male friendships, portrayed in Brideshead Revisited or Remembrance of Things Past. Yet, with its sense of mourning over a past that can never be recovered, and with the conclusion that good and bad live together in a person, however heroic they might initially seem and however much we love them, it reminds me most of Le Grand Meaulnes.
For one brief year Hans and Konradin become inseparable, against all expectations, for this is 1932 in Germany and one is Jewish, the other very Aryan indeed. The author sums up the differences between them in his very concise, spare style, leaving so much to be imagined by the reader.
Who was I to talk to him? In which of Europe’s ghettos had my ancestors been huddled when Frederick von Hohenstaufen gave Anno von Hohenfels his bejewelled hand? What could I, son of a Jewish doctor, grandson and great-grandson of a Rabbi, and of a line of small merchants and cattle dealers, offer this golden-haired boy whose very name filled me with such awe?
And yet their friendship thrives, as they discuss their coin collections, debate philosophy, hike up and down the region, shyly admit to fancying certain girls, and recite from their favourite poet Hölderlin (incidentally, their favourite poem by him is also my favourite, which I learnt by heart at much the same age as the main characters and yet refers to middle age). There is perhaps a slight hint that they are aware of a social chasm between them: Hans is ashamed of the way his parents are overly impressed by his new friend’s titles, while Konradin never seems to invite Hans into his home when his parents are around.
Hitler and Fascism still seem like a joke or a temporary madness that no one is willing to take seriously. Hans’ father is so firmly assimilated in his German home that he sends a Zionist fundraiser packing. He speaks for many of the German and Austrian Jews of the period.
To claim Palestine after two thousand years made no more sense to him than the Italians claiming Germany because it was once occupied by the Romans. It could only lead to endless bloodshed… And anyway what had he, a Stuttgarter, to do with Jerusalem?
When the Zionist mentioned Hitler… my father said: …’I know my Germany. This is a temporary illness, something like measles, which will pass as soon as the economic situation improves. Do you really believe that the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish?’
But they do. A lesson from history for us all. The ending is incredibly poignant, yet very spare stylistically. This is certainly not a writer who piles on adjectives or effusions, which perhaps makes this ‘typical’ story all the more memorable. Uhlman was a painter, and like Tove Jansson, also a painter, he knows how to convey just enough with words to build that picture in our mind.
After four months of #EU27Project, I have to admit I have not been the hardest- working reviewer. I have only linked to six books in total (and two of those are from the same country, France, while the rest are : Germany, Czechia, Ireland and the Netherlands), so in reality only 5 of the 27 countries have been represented in 4 months. At this rate, I have little chance of finishing this project this year – but, unlike some politicians, I never thought it was going to be an easy and quick process, so I’m allowing myself time to continue this project next year.
However, I’m pleased to say that other book bloggers have been far busier than me, so, since my last update in March, we have moved from 16 reviews to 41.
France is the biggest mover, from 0 in the first batch to 6 reviews in the current one. Susan Osborne reviews two very different types of books: Marie Suzan’s poignant Her Father’s Daughter and the lighter French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain. Kate Jackson reviews a book by Sebastian Japrisot, one of my favourite French crime writers, while Karen from Booker Talk considers a contemporary crime novel Hell’s Gateby Laurent Gaudé. I have also reviewed two French books, the not quite satisfactoryMen by Marie Darrieussecq and the dark but very funny and musical Les harmoniques by Marcus Malte.
Austria is also a popular choice for us book bloggers (a trend which I heartily approve!). It already featured in the first batch and has notched up an additional five reviews, although, to be fair, three of those are for short stories or novellas by Arthur Schnitzler by Jonathan: Late Fame, The Spring Sonataand A Confirmed Bachelor. Like Chekhov, Schnitzler was a doctor as well as a writer, and very much concerned with the human psyche. He describes perfectly the darkness in the Viennese soul at the turn of the 20th century (and not only then). Kate reviews a book set in the same period, Leo Perutz’ The Master of the Day of Judgement, Susan reviews one of my favourite recent reads, Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist, with a guest appearance from Sigmund Freud.
Reviews from the Netherlands continue to trickle in. Karen attempts The Evenings, but does she like it any more than Lizzy did in the first two months of the project? Meanwhile, Susan found The Boy by Wytske Versteeg deeply unsettling. Ireland also features with two new reviews, a new one for The Glorious Heresies, which makes it the most popular book so far (3 reviews in total), and Anne Enright’s The Green Road.
The remaining countries featured in the selection of March and April have been: Norway, represented by Anne Holt – Norway is not in the EU, but we will leave that link there anyway; Denmark with Dorthe Nors’ Mirror Shoulder Signal, Poland with Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, Czech Republic or Czechia with Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains. The French might take exception with Marguerite Yourcenar representing Belgium rather than France, but that was Jonathan’s choice and that country is rather under-represented.
After a strong start in the first batch of reviews, Germany only managed one review in this round, a lesser-known Heinrich Böll oeuvre.
So what will the next two months bring? Personally, I intend to read more in this category. Perhaps two or three in May? I am currently reading the road-trip book by Andrzej Stasiuk (Poland), and will move on to poems from Malta and Pessoa’s pseudo-diary The Book of Disquiet (Portugal). But, as we all know, my plans for reading don’t always work out and I get easily side-tracked.
Special thanks and celebrations for Susan Osborne, Kate Jackson, Jonathan from Intermittencies of the Mind and Karen from Booker Talk, who have been the most prolific reviewers over these past two months, but thank you to everyone who has contributed, read, tweeted about this project.
I’m delighted to say that a number of you have responded – and it’s doubly appreciated, because it’s not the most intuitive linking method. You have to write the country, the author or book title and then your name in brackets, as it doesn’t have separate lines for each item of information.
We have 16 reviews and blogger Lizzy Siddalhas been the most prolific reviewer to date. She has posted two books from the Netherlands: Gerard Reve’s masterpiece from 1947 translated at last into English, and Esther Gerritsen’s description of a toxic mother/daughter relationship. Also, two from Austria: short stories by Stefan Zweig (perennial old favourite) and a disquieting thriller by Bernhard Aichner. There is also a sly dig at behind the scenes of literary prizes by Filippo Bologna from Italy and a collection of short stories by Spanish writer Medardo Fraile described as ‘one of the best I’ve ever read’ – high praise indeed and it’s gone straight onto my TBR list. So here is a bouquet for Lizzy and her sterling work!
Netherlands is front-runner in terms of number of book reviews. In addition to the two by Lizzy, there is also a review of Herman Koch’s story of personal and social meltdown The Dinner. Joint top of the leaderboard is Germany, with three historical novels. Susan Osborne reviews Summer Before the Dark, a fictional account of Stefan Zweig and Josef Roth spending the summer of 1936 together in Ostende, refugees in vacation land. Joseph Kanon’s thriller Leaving Berlin is set in post-war, post-partition Berlin and is reviewed by Maphead. Finally, Ricarda Huch’s novella The Last Summer is set in Russia just on the cusp of the 1917 revolution.
There are two book reviews for Ireland, both for Lisa McInerney’s riotous description of the less touristy side of Cork The Glorious Heresies: one by Kate Vane and one by myself. Finland can also boast two reviews, both for historical novels: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen reviewed in French by Sylvie Heroux from Montreal; while Mrs. Peabody investigates Kjell Westö’s The Wednesday Club, which provides a rather grim insight into Finland’s troubled history.
Peirene Press is represented with no less than 3 reviews: in addition to White Hunger and The Last Summer, there is also a Danish representative The Murder of Halland , which is not so much a crime novel as a story about grieving, reviewed by Karen at BookerTalk.
Another publisher which is well represented here is Pushkin Press, with 5 reviews, most of them by Lizzy, but also Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann. So well done to these two independent publishers for making so much European culture available to us in the UK!
Last but not least, one of the youngest EU members, Croatia, is represented by the book Girl at War by Sara Novic, highly recommended by Maphead.
In terms of personal plans, I’ve already veered away from my original ones. I oomed and aahed about my selection for Germany, gave up on considering Kati Hiekkapelto for the Finnish entry (because her book takes place in Serbia), switched my Irish entry, found a women’s writing collective for Lithuania (still to be reviewed) and am still conflicted about France… And I still have zero inspiration for Malta or Cyprus.
Thank you to all the participants and I hope to see many more of you in the months to come. I believe there are a few of you who have reviewed books which would fall into the EU27 category, but have not linked up yet, so please do so if you get a chance. There is no deadline, no pressure, and absolutely no shame in back-linking to older reviews from late 2016 or early 2017.
I waited a long time before I found a book worthy enough to represent Germany for the #EU27Project. I read and discarded Marc Elsberg’s Blackout, which I reviewed for Crime Fiction Lover, because it was too much of a Europe-wide cyber thriller (although perhaps for that very reason it would be a good candidate for any EU project). Mechtild Borrmann’s To Clear the Air has a strong sense of German small town location, but was just not interesting enough to warrant inclusion on this list. I hesitated about Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies because it had more of a Patricia Highsmith feel to it and was set in an unspecified location which reminded me of the South of France.
However, I am nothing if not inconsistent, and finally it was Ricarda Huch’s book which won my vote, even if it is set in pre-revolutionary Russia rather than in Germany. Huch’s voice is one which deserves to be heard in troubled times when ‘intellectual’ is in danger of becoming a term of abuse. Well educated and polymath in an age when it was difficult for women to get into higher education, she was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, plays and historical works, an expert on Italian, German and Russian history. Quite full of revolutionary ideas in her younger years (she wrote about Bakunin and anarchy, and the women’s movement among other things), she refused to cooperate with the Nazi regime and went into internal exile in 1933.
Her ability to empathise with both the status quo and the revolutionary spirit is what makes The Last Summer such a compelling read. It’s an epistolary novel and the immediacy of the different voices and points of view make this a complex multi-tonal choral work. Translated with panache by Jamie Bulloch, it feels as fresh as if it had been written only yesterday.
Following pronounced student unrest and protests at the beginning of the 20th century, the governor of St Petersburg has decided to close the state university. He receives death threats, even as he retreats with his family to his countryside residence over the summer. His worried wife hires a bodyguard, Lyu, without suspecting that he is in fact on the side of the revolutionary students and plans to assassinate the governor. Through the letters written by Lyu to his co-conspirator Konstantin, and the letters sent by other people in the house, we get to know all the members of the family: the childish only son, Velya, who tries to act cool and becomes increasingly critical of his father’s decision to close the university; the two blonde daughters – fiery Katya and gentle Jessika, who both fall under Lyu’s spell to some extent; anxious, protective mother and wife Lusinya; and the governor himself, Yegor, a rather typical benevolent yet authoritarian patriarch, who refuses to listen to any other points of view.
Although this short novel (easily read in a single sitting, as so many of Peirene’s books are designed to be read) has a clear sense of time and place, it is also timeless. Neither side is spared: the position of privilege, the rather patronising attitude towards the servants working for them, the often shallow understanding of politics by the ‘chattering’ classes are all exposed, but so is the deceitful way in which Lyu inveigles himself into the hearts and minds of the family, his stubborn insistence on the only ‘correct’ path (although, in a feverish moment, he seems to have a change of heart).
The central theme here is whether ideology should take precedence over humanity. This is indeed a dilemma which has vexed us most of the 20th century (and clearly continues to do so in the 21st). Should we stick to our principles, especially the political ones, or should we look at the human stories, make exceptions for individual cases, for getting to know people, for giving second chances? Is it necessary to take direct and violent action for one’s beliefs, especially if you have exhausted all the other peaceful options? Should we be allowed to change our minds if we begin to believe that the end does not justify the means?
The author shows us one course of action and the human cost of following one’s principles. It’s a book which provokes both an emotional and a cerebral reaction – I will certainly be thinking about it for a long time.
If you have any interest at all in German literature or in crime fiction, you will enjoy leafing through this erudite and yet still very readable collection of articles. Or, if you are slightly obsessed like myself, you will read it from cover to cover and then start all over again. And I’m not just saying that because I was flattered to receive an electronic proof copy by the University of Wales Press. It is that rarest of creatures: an academic study which is also very enjoyable and could become a bestseller!
What is remarkable about the book is the breadth and depth of topics it covers. In terms of breadth, no stone is left unturned. The editor Katharina Hall (known to many crime fiction fans as Mrs. Peabody from her much-loved blog) and the other contributors cover not just the obvious subject areas (West German, East German, Austrian and Swiss crime fiction), but also lesser-known categories such as women’s crime writing, historical crime fiction, the place of Africa in German crime fiction and even television dramas. Furthermore, the definition of crime fiction itself is deliberately broad, and includes literary authors writing crime-infused experimental or social novels (Hans Fallada, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek) as well as more traditional crime.
In terms of depth, you will find here not only comprehensive overviews of the development of crime fiction in each of the German-speaking countries, as you might expect from an academic tome, but also a focus on specific writers or books. Martin Rosenstock’s analysis of Dürrenmatt, for instance, is beautifully nuanced, pointing out how the Swiss author breaks all the classic formulas of the crime genre, whilst also poking fun at the self-aggrandising Swiss myths of neutrality, wealth and historical heritage.
Each chapter (or article) is followed not only by endnotes and a select bibliography of books (mostly those available in translation), but also recommendations for further secondary reading. Where no English translations are available for a work cited, there is a small extract in English at the end of the chapter as well, just enough to give you a flavour of the original and whet your appetite for more. This is also one of the stated aims of the book: ‘to provide readers with a springboard for further reading, viewing and research’. There is also an excellent table at the front with the chronology of crime fiction in German, including political, criminal and publishing milestones from 800 until the present day.
I will not attempt a blow-by-blow account of each topic, but allow me to highlight just a few.
I may be slightly prejudiced in favour of Austrian writers, but I certainly appreciate the article on the odd humour and often extreme experimentation by Austrian authors, written by Marieke Krajenbrink, and have already ordered several books from her list of recommendations.
Thanks to an article Katharina Hall agreed to write for Crime Fiction Lover, I had previously experienced her encyclopedic knowledge of crime fiction dealing with different aspects or periods in German history (mostly the Nazi period and the reunification of the country after the Cold War). It was a pleasure, however, to read a more thorough analysis of the topic, as well as a detailed discussion of two fantastic (and very different) novels: Fallada’s Alone in Berlin and Simon Urban’s Plan D.
Finally, I cannot forget the fascinating articles which open up an entirely new world to me: Julia Augart’s analysis of the so-called Afrika-Krimi and Faye Stewart’s research on the Frauenkrimi (women crime writers). I had never heard of the first as a subgenre, and never stopped to compare the themes and styles of male and female German crime novelists.
In conclusion, either this book is a great exception to the rule, or else academic books have evolved considerably since my time, because I find it very approachable indeed. It achieves that wonderful balance between ‘speaking to ordinary readers’ without ‘dumbing down’. I’ve learnt something new in every single chapter and yet, try as I might, I can’t find any pretentious or obscure references which so often plague literary criticism. I was hoping for some Lacan or Foucault or at least Wittgenstein to throw my arms up at, but no! It stays admirably grounded throughout.
Congratulations to all the contributors and editors involved in this project. There is nothing quite like it in the English language. I will certainly treasure it and return to it as a work of reference for many years to come.
‘Now, Marina, this time you’ve gone too far with your tenuous links between books which you are reviewing!’ [I can hear you say.] ‘The thread here is so thin it wouldn’t hold a spider! What could a zombie apocalypse, an angry teenager and a staid family man have in common?’ But hear me out, for there is some zany logic at work here: each of these books is about someone coming from ‘outside’ and trying to inveigle themselves into a new world, a new society, yet failing to understand its rules or deliberately subverting them. There is also a common theme of loss and of feeding on anger and sorrow. Not convinced? Let’s go into a little more detail.
Alina Bronsky: Scherbenpark
The first ‘alien’ (which is what Japan was calling those with foreign passports until the early 1990s) is a Russian growing up in Germany. 17 year old Sascha has a clear aim in life: she wants to kill her mother’s violent ex-partner, Vadim, who murdered her a couple of years before the story starts and is now banged up in prison. A Siberian aunt who doesn’t speak a word of German has come to look after Sascha and her younger brother and sister. Meanwhile, Sascha tries to write a book about her mother, to show what she was really like, but ends up spending the summer sulking instead, teasing and annoying people, thinking she knows everything best, raging at anyone who tries to help and getting herself into some really strange situations. She is good at school and speaks German far better than anyone else in her ghetto, so she feels superior to her fellow Russians. Yet at the same time she is disdainful about the Germans in their naive comfortable existence, which she simultaneously yearns for but also ridicules.
I understood Sascha’s anger and bewilderment, but at times she seemed too wise for her years and at other times too childish. There was also no real menace other than Vadim – everyone around her turns out to be far better than they seem at first sight (and, quite frankly, they often behave far better than she deserves). Sascha herself, for all her posturing, is not as cruel and uncaring as she pretends to be, she ends up helping everyone and (with one exception) never puts herself in any real danger. All this sounds a bit like wishful thinking to me. However, as an insight into an adolescent mind and a way of life ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’, I thought it was pretty good.
The breathless, snappy style could get on my nerves after a while, but fits this particular protagonist. Bronsky is no great stylist (at least, judging from this novel), but it was better than Tigermilk– in fact, it felt like the original upon which Tigermilk was based. Surprisingly, Bronsky was not 17 but 30 when she wrote this. I read the book in German but it has been translated by Tim Mohr and published by Europa Editions as ‘Broken Glass Park’.
Marius Daniel Popescu: La Symphonie du loup
The author is a Romanian poet and literary editor, who emigrated to Switzerland in his late twenties and worked as a bus driver in Lausanne. However, he has continued to be very active on the literary scene in both French and Romanian, founding a literary journal in Switzerland and publishing two volumes of poetry. This book is his first novel and was quite a success in France but remains only available in French.
The book has an autobiographical flavour, describing childhood and student days in Romania during Ceausescu’s time, interspersed with scenes from present-day Swiss life and learning to be a father. The author is a few years older than me, but so many of his bittersweet memories sound familiar: living with his grandmother in the countryside; getting onto the crowded trains without a ticket and bribing the ticket-inspector instead; participating in public processions to praise ‘our beloved leader; family gatherings, funerals, hospital visits, overcrowded student halls. Then we have the glimpses of Swiss bureaucracy, little everyday habits and routines, absurd rules which make us smile (or grind our teeth). The protagonist does not exactly feel like a misfit, but somehow remains spreadeagled between countries, not quite belonging to either, trying to explain one to the other.
The structure of the book can be difficult to follow: made up of strips of memories, like paper that has been through the shredder and is now mixed up in all styles and colours. There is no chronology, of course, and we get glimpses of a child, a student, and then a man tending to a toddler and watching the joy on her face as she learns something new. Then back again, in no particular order. The descriptions of life in Romania were evocative, sometimes lyrical, sometimes funny, at times shocking, but certainly rich in colour and atmosphere. The explorations of present-day life as a father and family man were not bad either, but the constant jumps from one to the other became irritating and I failed to see the relevance and connection at times. I suppose it was done for the sake of contrast between the luminous instances of love and protection in the ‘now’, and the rather lonely childhood under so-called ‘state protection’.
The author has been praised as a stylist and won prizes for this novel, but I am not fully convinced. At least in French, which is a second language for both of us. It feels a little like we are trying to converse with oven gloves on. The author is a poet, I can see that curiosity and playfulness with language in certain passages. But at times he relies on very detailed description which can be bland and overly long, or even lists and word-for-word rendering of instructions (in 3 languages) or posters at the opticians’, things like that. Perhaps it makes native French speakers become more aware of the inconsistencies of their language, but to me it seemed lazy and not terribly relevant. Finally, I found the author’s over-reliance on the second person to tell the story of childhood (as if a grandfather were reminding his grandson of his past) tiresome in the long run.
Elizabeth Knox: Wake
Knox is a well-known writer in her native New Zealand, but I haven’t come across her before. (My knowledge of authors from that part of the world is atrocious.) So I had no idea what to expect, other than that the author is dismissive of genre distinctions. She most certainly is!
This is horror story, science-fiction, psychological thriller, mystery and disturbing dystopian tale all rolled into one. Despite its gruesome opening scenes, it’s really more about the characters and how they learn to live with each other, take care of each other and deal with loss. No spoilers if I tell you that there are only fourteen survivors living under a force field which has descended upon their town on the Tasman Bay and is isolating them from the outside world. Inside this ‘dome’, there is an invisible monster who feeds on death, grief, anger, fear and other weaknesses and is picking them off one by one. Think ‘And Then There Were None’ with even more inexplicable phenomena.
In this book, we not only find an actual alien, but also people feeling jolted out of their happy, unquestioning existence, a sense of strangeness permeating everything they do, say and think thereafter. No one can be quite sure of themselves or others – is the evil within or without? Readers will be just as confused as the characters.There is a real sense of danger, as any outcome seems possible. One thing is certain: there will be no return to the age of innocence.
A story very much outside my reading comfort zone, but which left me unsettled and very thoughtful. The kind of reading which throws up more questions than it answers, I would compare it with Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Sawin terms of impact.