Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps.
This month’s starting point is the Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate. I must be one of the few people who never saw the film adaptation of it, but I heard about it and was curious to read the book. I enjoyed its combination of recipes and home-spun wisdom, but I never quite understood the bestseller status of it.
Valeria Luiselli is another Mexican writer that I have started to really appreciate. So far I have only read some of her essays and interviews, and really enjoyed her fragmented, unusual yet very evocative novel Faces in the Crowd. But I definitely want to read more.
Another author I keep meaning to read more of is Sarah Moss. The novel Night Waking is the next one of hers that I have on my bookshelf, sitting nice and pretty and hoping I will pick it up.
Another novel with Night in the title is of course Tender Is the Nightby F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most excoriating portraits of a marriage and expat society that I can imagine.
Speaking of expats, an example of expats behaving badly (or the extreme loneliness of expat life, if you are feeling kindly disposed) is Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau. While I was intrigued by the depiction of a woman going amok in neat and ordered Zürich, it was not as enjoyable and innovative as Essbaum’s poetry, for which she is better known.
There are plenty of poets turned novelists but the one who never ceases to fascinate me is Rainer Maria Rilke’s one and only novel (a sort of semi-autobiographical journal-meditation) The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Just mentioning it here makes me want to read it again – it is such a rich source of wonder and inspiration, made to be read again and again.
My final choice also refers to notebooks: Anna Wulf’s famous coloured notebooks (black for the writer, red for political activism, yellow for her memoirs, blue for a diary) in The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. A seminal work of feminist literature, which had a profound impact on me when I was in my teens.
So my journey this month takes me from cooking in Mexico to political demos in 1960s London, via New York, the Hebrides, the Cote d’Azure, Zürich and Paris. As always, I like to travel! You can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or create your own blog post. Where will your 6 degrees of separation journey take you?
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!
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.
The 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:
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:
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.
There were quite a few fun, quick reads, which I heartily recommend in the run-up to Christmas:
Marian 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.
I’m not sure whether I should be reviewing Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel ‘Hausfrau’ (the German for ‘housewife’) yet, as it’s not due to come out until May 2015. It’s the only book I’ve been pleading with publishers and publicists to send me an advance copy, because I felt I was born to review it. After all, it’s about the emptiness of an expat woman’s life in neatly-boxed-in, high-quality-of-life-is-assured-if-you-stick-to-the-rules Switzerland… Ring any bells? I may live just across the border in France now, but it’s still something I know both from personal experience and through my work.
In fact, I’d started planning a novel based on my experience as a ‘trailing spouse’ and was convinced that Essbaum had written that book. That turns out not to be the case (my mind is more filled with murderous intent than hers, obviously), but what a moving read it has been! Add to this the fact that Essbaum is an acclaimed poet and this is her debut novel, and you have pretty much all of my reasons to admire her (and be just a wee bit envious). Here is the blurb:
Anna Benz, an American woman in her late thirties, married Bruno, a Swiss banker, and made a new life with him in Dietlikon, a picture-perfect suburb of Zurich, where they live in comfort and affluence with their three young children. But just as the neat and tidy exterior of Zurich and Dietlikon obscures the darker, more complicated aspects of living in Switzerland so is Anna, despite the tranquility and order of her domestic life, falling apart inside.
Described as ‘a literary page-turner with echoes of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina’, it also deals with themes such as loneliness, a woman’s quest for personal identity (apart from that of wife and mother), culture shock, alienation and the need for beauty in one’s life (which leads us to search for it in all the wrong places). I will review it in more detail closer to the release date, which will almost certainly involve some re-reading. No bad thing, since I gulped this down in just two evenings!
While I was waiting for the ARC of ‘Hausfrau’, however, I wrote a poem about Anna Karenina, which fits in rather well with the atmosphere of this novel. Here it is in its unedited first draft:
She walks into the station as if
nothing could reach out or jostle
her intent; as if
the icy sheen on her forehead
gives her an armour of aloofness, invisible
Her foresight is complete, her pockets emptied of clues.
No noise to pierce her eardrums, she glides through crowds
erect and poised.
Her spine gains inches as if
the stone-weight of family has left her shoulders.
She drifts up the staircase, and crowds part
at the gauntness of her stare.
First up, then down,
directions cease to matter
if the journey’s end is one.
She’ll catch a moment when
they’re wrapped up in their small partings, their music and their emails,