Summary of November Reading

It’s a dark, dank month and we’ve been plagued by fog and migraines. Thank goodness the reading has made up for it! I’ve read a total of 14 books this month, of which 5 crime fiction, 6 foreign books, 6 by women authors (plus a collection of short stories which contains both men and women authors, of course). Three short story collections this month, which is quite out of character – I’m developing a love for the form. Quite a lot of memorable reads and only one turkey – rather appropriately, in a month in which American Thanksgiving is celebrated.

GermanLitThe best idea was participating in the German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I’ve discovered so many new authors by reading the reviews of the other participants, remembered old favourites that I hadn’t touched since childhood and had the opportunity to explore some books of my own. I didn’t quite get to read everything I intended (Dürrenmatt will have to wait until another month), but I did reasonably well:

Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time – collection of surreal short stories

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten – another short story collection, but more rooted in reality

Vienna Tales – the third short story collection, all with Vienna as a setting, although I only discuss the Joseph Roth stories in this review

Hester Vaizey: Born in the GDR – fantastic set of interviews with the Unification Generation in Germany

I also read some French authors to balance this out:

A young Modiano, in the 1970s.
A young Modiano, in the 1970s.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir – jetlagged escapade in China

Patrick Modiano: Un Pedigree – memoirs of the Nobel prize-winner’s childhood: born into a highly unconventional family, his parents separated quite early on and he was sent away to boarding-school and generally ignored/forgotten about until he published his first novel at the age of 22. Not a masterpiece of style, but a sad story which explains perhaps his literary search for identity and meaning.

TrucOlivier Truc: Forty Days without Shadow – intriguing debut crime novel about the Reindeer Police in Lapland

There were some memorable reads about women feeling out of place, trapped in their marriage… and about so much more:

Jill Alexander Essbaum: Hausfrau

Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You

There were quite a few fun, quick reads, which I heartily recommend in the run-up to Christmas:

SilkwormMarian Keyes: Angels – another woman running away from her marriage,but with Keyes’ humorous take on the subject and sly observations about Hollywood

Robert Galbraith: The Silkworm – she knows how to spin a good yarn, even if it’s somewhat wordy, and I love her sharp digs at writers’ egos and the publishing industry

Philip Kerr: Research – a break from the Bernie Gunther series, this is a helter-skelter of a funny thriller, again needling writers and publishers – are we discovering a new trend here?

Janet O’Kane: No Stranger to Death – shall we call this ‘tartan cosy’ – a new genre which mixes amateur detection and village gossip with some dark subject matter

Finally, the promised turkey, which I dutifully read to the end because it was a Book Club choice for November (although I felt like abandoning it many, many times):

C. J. Sansom: Dominion – it felt too bulky, repetitive, unedited, although I enjoyed the premise of an alternative past in which England was occupied by the Nazis. However, it’s been done so much more successfully and thrillingly in Robert Harris’ ‘Fatherland’, without the rather intrusive explanations and political discussions. And this one’s about 700 pages long to Harris’ 400. Shame, as I enjoy Sansom’s other books.

 

 

 

 

 

Male Midlife Crisis in Books – a French prerogative?

middleageOr should this post be called ‘Woman! Without her, man is nothing but an animal…’? Over the past 2 months I’ve read a number of books by French-speaking writers in which men are approaching something like a mid-life crisis. Outwardly, they seem a bit young for it  – in their thirties for the most part – so perhaps the disappearance of a good woman from their lives is the catalyst that provokes this falling apart. Seduced and abandoned in equal measure by life and by women, these men are struggling with the weight of their bruised egos.

Although the authors and the stories are all very different, there is a similar atmosphere to these books. It’s the cry of a soul in pain – a man not used to expressing his emotions (yes, even if they are writers like Ramon Hill)  trying to connect with us the readers. Trying to give voice to emotions they are incapable of naming.

Joseph Incardano: Banana Spleen

André Pastrella is a 30-something drifter, although he starts out with a semblance of a normal life. He is a part-time teacher, has an attractive live-in girlfriend Gina, additional income from helping his Chilean friend Pablo do house moves. He enjoys a beer, a tennis game, has a colleague who quite fancies him but he turns her down. He is attempting to write a novel, settle down, but is not quite ready to commit to either.

Then, in the midst of the cold, dry, sterile Geneva winter, his life spins out of control. His girlfriend dies in a car crash and suddenly André realises how much of his self-control (weak though it may have been) depended on her. He squanders her inheritance (which her parents insist should be shared with him) on a family monument in a cemetery, which he later sells to gypsies. His behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.  He loses his job and is made to attend ‘social reinsertion’ classes, where he develops a stalkerish obsession with his instructor on the course. He betrays Pablo by having sex with his hooker girlfriend, he commits acts of vandalism, and generally wallows in the seedy underbelly of the Genevois lifestyle (or what passes for seedy in this rule-driven country). The spleen erupts at all levels: the main character is often infuriating and out of control, but he does produce a manuscript in the end. It remains unclear to me if his grief has been digested and if he has learnt any lasting lessons out of his experience.

220voltsJoseph Incardano: 220 Volts

Ramon Hill is another writer struggling with writer’s block. However, in his case, it’s his fourth book and his previous ones have had some success. His wife Margot suggests they take a break in her family’s mountain chalet, which might also help to rekindle their marriage. Which is not going badly… officially at least… but it’s getting a little stale, buried under the routine of children and work. But isolation proves to be their undoing, as they get to know too much about each other. The couple engage in a deadly game of cat and mouth, of spying upon each other, instead of communicating openly.  As the blurb says ‘ Incardona turns a love story into a noir novel. Because love stories usually finish badly…’.

This is much tauter writing than in Banana Spleen. The story does not finish with the dastardly deed (I leave it open who kills whom and how). And even when we think we understand what has happened, the author reserves another little twist. Cleverly done, written in an impeccably lean style – no superfluous words or wallowing about in misery, like the previous narrator – this one’s a wicked little meditation on marriage and selfishness.

Grégoire Delacourt: On ne voyait que le bonheur (All You Could See Was the Happiness)

I’ve reviewed this in detail elsewhere, but it too is the story of a nervous breakdown of a man nearing middle-age. Antoine may have had an unhappy childhood, but are those psychological scars enough to explain his horrendous deeds? There is a gradual piling on of horror here which somehow avoids the plunge into lurid melodrama. And ultimately, the message of the book is about forgiveness and redemption.

FuirJean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir (Running Away)

The narrator finds himself in a befuddled, jet-lagged state in China, at the behest of his girlfriend Marie (who is safely back in Paris). He has a rather suspicious, bulky man as his constant companion and bodyguard and for some reason an arty young female student joins them too, arousing feelings of desire, even though the male protagonist is sure that Marie is the love of his life. From the sublime to the ridiculous it’s just a small (mis)step. A lust-riddled scene in a toilet on a train is interrupted by a mobile phone in a backpack. There’s a mad dash through the building-sites and busy streets of Beijing on a motorcycle, with smelly bowling shoes, not quite sure whether it’s the police or the ‘baddies’ chasing them. The final part of the book  sees the narrator reunited with Marie on the island of Elba, at the funeral of her father. This part of the story is infused with lyricism rather than visual pyrotechnics and black humour. Yet it’s a hazy, dream-like sequence – almost too good to be true. Is it just wishful thinking, is the narrator being transported to the old stone houses and gardens filled with thyme and sage through sheer exhaustion?

So, in response to my title question: is it a French man’s prerogative to have a midlife crisis? Certainly not, but they are more willing to admit to it and be eloquent about it than most. (Recent presidential peccadilloes aside.)  

I seem to be on a roll with books about midlife crisis and disillusionment – books about German, Polish and other country’s disenchantment with life, love and politics are on my TBR pile, written from both male and female perspectives. I hope it doesn’t drive me to utter despondency…