Winding Down and Wrapping Up (4)

Just when I thought the bad summer months had passed and I was about to turn things around with a quiet writing holiday at last… things continued to not work out according to hopes and plans. However, this did lead to some major reading therapy, so the year finished strong at least in that respect.

My second brush with Covid led once again to a weakened immune system, and thus infections with all the viruses life could throw at me, plus more severe symptoms as soon as I caught something for the rest of the autumn.

The week-long October holiday in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside would have been the perfect rest, combining creativity with long walks and visits to Shibden Hall and Hebden Bridge… but alas, I was plagued by a vicious migraine and nausea for most of my stay there, and could barely make it out of bed. I hobbled down to Slaithwaite one morning, and managed to translate about 3000 words, but that was all I had to show for my much longed-for writing retreat.

Things got worse when I came back home. My younger son, whose nickname used to be the Duracell Bunny for his endless energy and sunny disposition, which made him a firm favourite whenever we visited family back in Greece or Romania, suddenly admitted he was deeply depressed and expressed suicidal thoughts.

I can take any amount of bad things happening to me, but bad things happening to my loved ones are much harder to face. I’ve spent these past few months trying to reassure him, get help, keep talking to him without becoming the pushy, prying mum… Above all, find a way to kickstart his engine and reawaken his joie de vivre and natural curiosity. Although I’ve experienced similar feelings myself in the past, although I have been a trained volunteer for the Samaritans, it’s horrible to see how all that becomes inconsequential when it’s your own child. It’s like treading on eggshells all the time. I am aware that it’s not a situation that can be fixed quickly or fully, so we take each day as it comes. I also feel very alone in all of this, as he won’t allow me to mention his fears and depression to his father or brother (for good reason, I suspect, as his father was very dismissive and unhelpful when I was depressed). Luckily, his school has been very supportive and we are collaborating on this quite well. But he has his A Levels this year, so things are… complicated.

Given the emotional and physical lows of that month, my reading was very escapist and not entirely memorable. The crime book I enjoyed most was The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee, the latest book in his delectable series set in pre-independence India, and I probably related a little too much with the treacherous middle-aged academic in Vladimir by Julia May Jonas (not pictured above because I like neither the US nor the UK cover).

Winter in Sokcho and Mateiu Caragiale were perhaps rather melancholy choices for the month, but they were both beautifully written – at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum, simple and unadorned to ornate and baroque. However, I have to admit it was a struggle to read Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire during this period, because of the grim subject matter, and I might not have been able to finish it if I’d not had Daniel Hahn’s translation diary alongside it. And, much as I love Marlen Haushofer’s writing style, her novella The Loft or her biography were not exactly light reading matter either. Luckily, my other reading choices for German Literature Month were somewhat lighter: Isabel Bogdan’s The Peacock was delightfully farcical but not silly, while Franz Schuh’s Laughing and Dying may sound grim but is actually a collection of essays and anecdotes, poems and little plays exploring what it means to be Viennese (review to follow in the Austrian Riveter in early 2023).

In November, my older son came home for what was going to be a delightful week-long stay to impress us with his newfound cooking and cleaning skills. However, his sore throat and cough got worse, morphed into glandular fever and ended up requiring multiple calls to NHS 111, emergency out-of-hours service and finally the A&E at hospital. He passed on at least part of the virus to us two as well, so November passed by in an interminable blur of collective ill health.

Perhaps not the best backdrop to read challenging journeys through someone’s convoluted brain and memories, such as Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu or Javier Marias’ trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (which I’ve been reading at the rate of one a month, and still have to review). Even the speculative crime novel In the Blink of an Eye by Jo Callaghan, fascinating though it was as a premise (who is less biased and better able to solve a case, a live detective or an AI one?), had a theme of suicide and ill health, so was not quite as escapist as I’d hoped.

However, December dawned more hopeful: a lovely trip to Newcastle Noir with two of our Corylus authors, Tony Mott from the prettiest town in Romania, Brașov, and Óskar Guðmundsson from Iceland. In celebration, I read several good crime novels to end the year: Ian Rankin’s latest, featuring a retired but still very rebellious Rebus, Trevor Wood’s first in a trilogy featuring an ‘invisible’ homeless man solving crimes he witnesses on the streets, and Keigo Higashino’s entertaining mix of police procedural and psychological depth.

Older son recovered fully and enjoyed a ski trip in France, coming back full of nostalgic stories about French food and books, pistes we had both loved, and oodles of Swiss chocolate (he flew via Geneva). I am looking forward to some cosy film-watching with both of them (we started with Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio yesterday, on the first day of holidays), lots of reading, favourite Christmassy foods… and will ignore gas bills, ongoing concerns about family members, several substantial literary and translation rejections, or my own precarious health.

Hope really does spring eternal – and in 2023 I resolve to be more physically active, take better care of myself as well as others, and not take on too many additional projects.

I will probably post a few more book reviews between Christmas and New Year, but I will sign off for a few days (other than the usual Friday Fun post) and may your holiday period be as unstressful as possible!

#GermanLitMonth: A Biography of Marlen Haushofer

Daniela Strigl: Wahrscheinlich bin ich verrückt… Marlen Haushofer – die Biographie. (I’m Probably Mad: the Biography of MH) List, 2007.

I was planning to read several novellas for German Literature Month (and thus fulfil a double function, to fit Novella in November Month too), but I got sidetracked once I finished Marlen Haushofer’s The Loft. I had acquired this biography of Marlen a year or two ago, after being so impressed with the few books of hers I’d managed to find and read in German. I knew the broad outlines of her life, but this time I could not resist delving a little deeper.

Marlen was born Maria Helene Frauendorfer in 1920 in Upper Austria. Her father was a qualified forester, while her mother was also descended from a forester family but had tried to escape her family fate by working as a maid for a noblewoman in her youth, travelling all over the world and staying in luxurious hotels. Marlen was a lively little girl who enjoyed the great outdoors and the freedom of wandering in the forests, playing with animals, listening to stories told by her favourite uncle – she later described those early years as quite idyllic, although she did suffer when her brother Rudi, the apple of her mother’s eye, was born.

All this was well-known to me. What I did not realise was just what a fall from paradise it was for Marlen to be sent to a convent school in Linz at the age of ten. She was one of the brightest girls in her class, but she was homesick, became depressed and succumbed to TB. She interrupted her studies to go to a sanatorium, and then fell promptly ill again. She finished school just after the Anschluss and was forced to do a year of civil service on the eastern borders of the German empire. In 1940 she started studying philosophy, German and art history in Vienna, which is where she met Manfred Haushofer, who was studying medicine. I knew that they got married in 1941 but what I did not know was that before the wedding Marlen had given birth to a little boy whose father was not Manfred, but a German student whom she had met a year earlier. Manfred accepted her illegitimate child, but he lived apart from them for a long time, even after they had a son of their own in 1942.

Manfred and Marlen settled in the little town of Steyr (a truly provincial town not far from her parents in Upper Austria) and opened a dental clinic together (Marlen helping out with the admin). Although this should have been a lucrative business, Marlen’s husband proved hopeless with money, always dashing after shiny gadgets and cars and other women, so they were never very well off. Marlen started writing, and had her champions in Vienna, but overall was not taken very seriously by the Viennese literary circles and experienced multiple rejections. Although she moved in the same circles as Ingeborg Bachmann, Ilse Aichinger, Thomas Bernhard, she was often mocked as the ‘provincial egg, the dentist’s wife, the forester’s daughter’.

I had always wondered why Marlen divorced her husband in 1950, only to then get remarried to him in 1958. I suspected he was a serial womaniser, which was true, and the last straw was when he had a serious relationship with one of Marlen’s best friends. However, I was stunned to discover that they continued to live in the same house and work together in the dental practice, that very few people (not even their children) knew that they were actually divorced, and that they both pursued other relationships during their years of estrangement. Marlen did not seem at all blind to her husband’s faults, nor was she deeply in love with him any longer, so why did she remarry him? She once told a friend that ‘you cannot be divorced in Steyr’. Perhaps, like the narrator in The Loft, she craved the comfort of routine. Perhaps she was disappointed by her occasional forays into Viennese cultural life and the other men in her life proved disappointing as well. She complained about not having enough time to write, of being a victim of her domestic arrangements, and yet she seemed reluctant to rid herself of her chains. As one of her writer friends said: ‘You know where you are going wrong, Marlen? If your husband asks you for a slice of bread and butter, you immediately make three for him.’

Her health had never been brilliant, so she mostly ignored the hip pain that started plaguing her in the mid-1960s. In 1968 she was diagnosed with bone cancer, which she kept hidden from friends and even her immediate family for as long as she could. This was a family where hardly anything was ever openly discussed. She died just a few weeks short of her fiftieth birthday in 1970.

The biographer Daniela Strigl interviewed family members and friends of Marlen Haushofer, as well as researching the archives. I wasn’t entirely convinced by her extensive use of quotes from Marlen’s novels to illustrate biographical details, but am not sure what else she could have done, because Marlen systematically destroyed all of her diaries (with one small exception) and the letters she received. Luckily, some of her correspondents kept the letters she sent them, but even then it would be a mistake to believe that this enigmatic author always meant exactly what she wrote. She wrote for maximum effect, in what was often a devastatingly cynical way that was in direct contrast to her apparently settled bourgeois housewifely existence. She was such a secretive person that her friends could never quite agree what she was like, whether she was happy or not – or even the colour of her eyes.

I’ll end with a few quotes from Marlen’s writings, some from her fiction, some from her personal papers:

You should never ask for too much, then you can never receive too little.

I find myself here in a place where I do not belong, living among people who know nothing of me, half of my strength is wasted on the effort of remaining inconspicuous. The older I get, the more I realise how hopelessly entangled all of us are, and I envy the person who never becomes aware of this.

She has become that friendly, slightly distracted woman who goes for a walk with her child, reads novels, receives her guests, puts flowers into vases, and generally feels life trickling away from her gently, without regrets. One of the many women whose will is broken, who are no longer really there. No matter how she chooses to live her life, she will sit there on that stone today, with the suspicion in her heart that she has picked the wrong path.

In spite of all my efforts, I seem stuck… I have the feeling, I am wasting all of my strength. I would not take pleasure in writing a successful book if I had the feeling I had let my family down. I really think it is impossible to be a good person and a good artist at the same time.

Marlen’s final letter, a sort of literary testament, which she wrote a week or so before her death, is truly heartbreaking, yet without the faintest hint of self-pity or self-indulgence:

Do not worry. You have seen too much and too little, just like everyone before you. You have cried too much, maybe too little, just like everyone before you. Maybe you have loved and hated too much – but not for long – twenty years or so. What are twenty years anyway? After that, part of you died, just like it did for all people who can no longer love nor hate […] Do not worry. Everything will have been in vain, just like it has always been. A completely normal story.

This is my last contribution to the German Literature Month extravaganza, but do please head over to the website hosted by Marcia (aka Lizzy Siddal) to see what other people have read this November.

#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Die Mansarde by Marlen Haushofer

It’s an amazing feeling, isn’t it, when as a reader you discover an author who seems to really speak both to and for you, whose writing you admire but who also makes you squirm a little because how could they possibly have gained such an insight into the deepest recesses of your soul, even those bits you want to hide because they are too embarrassing, too sad, too dark? This is how I felt about Marlen Haushofer after reading her masterpiece The Wall in the summer of 2020. I fell deeply in love with her voice, and at first I thought it was because of the circumstances: we had just experienced a world of emptiness, where time stood still. But then I read The Wallpaper Door and We Kill Stella, and I was blown away by both of them.

Plunging into a Haushofer book is like a cold dip into an Austrian alpine lake – bracing and potentially deadly, but oh, the clarity of the water! As you can see from the amount of post-its that I used for Die Mansarde, I want to remember almost every single sentence and this author has now joined my select band of favourites like Tove Jansson, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and Shirley Jackson (I am trying to imagine a dinner party with them, but suspect they were all such introverts they would not have enjoyed it much).

This latest foray into her work is a novella (a little on the longer side, but still under 200 pages), the last work published by Haushofer before her untimely death. The title can be translated as The Loft or The Attic, which is the place where the narrator, the typical strange, middle-aged, oddly passive Haushofer heroine, retreats to work on her illustrations of birds. She is married to Hubert, an uncommunicative lawyer who likes reading about historical battles. They barely touch and they never talk about anything important. They have two children, but the son, mother’s favourite, has left home and the daughter is oblivious to her parents, as all teenagers are. Outwardly, everything seems to be very average and fine in this Viennese family, albeit dull and predictable: every Sunday the couple goes to the Arsenal Military Museum, every weekday the husband goes to work, while the narrator either prepares his lunch or else has social obligations of her own – people she doesn’t really want to meet, and with whom she doesn’t have much in common. The narrator feels safe in this boring routine, even though she has no one with whom she can really talk properly. Her only escape valve is her sketchbook in the loft.

It turns out that the narrator used to be a book illustrator specialising in birds and insects, but something momentuous happened and she no longer does this professionally. All she strives for now is to draw a bird that does not look so isolated – surely birds by and large operate in flocks, so why do her birds look so lonely? (This lone bird motif seems to crop up quite a bit in Haushofer’s writing.)

In the first part of the book, the narrator teases us with multiple hints of ‘before and after’ a calamitous event, which completely changed the married couple’s life when their son was just three years old. The narrator suddenly went completely deaf upon hearing some sirens, perhaps as a trauma response after the war (the couple met and got married during the war, so the story takes place in the mid 1960s, we suspect)). Instead of going to a hospital, her husband paid for her to ‘recover’ at the house of a hunter in the countryside for eighteen months, while her young son stayed with her mother-in-law. In the countryside she met a man who used her deafness as way to purge himself of his guilt, confessing things to her that he knows she cannot hear, crying and shouting at her, to the point where she doesn’t know whether to fear or pity him. She wrote a diary during that period of self-imposed exile, and now fragments of this diary are showing up in envelopes in her letterbox. Forced to remember and reflect upon the past, which she has successfully avoided thus far, the narrator finally gets to understand her real nature and the emotions she has been suppressing for the sake of an ‘easy’, comfortable life.

The story doesn’t sound like much, yet there are so many beautiful passages, such psychological insight, that I don’t quite know how to share with you. Let me try and give you a flavour by sharing a few favourite quotes. In the first, the narrator wonders at how she and her husband have changed over the years – we have seen this in their minimalistic, dull interactions, but the narrator’s reflections add a heavy layer of… what is it exactly? Depression? Anxiety? Extreme self-consciousness?

It used to be different. Back then, Hubert was not so concerned about his dignity, we laughed a lot and invented games, something he has forgotten about and which is becoming an increasingly hazy memory for me too… That time ‘before’ would seem so unusual to me if I were to glimpse it through a key-hole: so strange, that I would have to cry, and I no longer know how to cry.

I’ve changed too, but not completely, because every time Ferdinand [her son] praises my desserts, I could jump in the air with glee. Somewhere locked inside of me there is a little girl who wants to warm her toes and dance around like all the other children. But she has been locked up, this is what happens to little girls who don’t know how to stop being little girls. It’s really my fault, that I cannot cope with the present day.

Another reoccurring theme in Haushofer’s work is the relationship between people and animals, with the author frequently seeing humans as the evil partner. Here the narrator is debating whether she should tame a kitten who is visiting her in the hunter’s house. The cat runs to hide in a bush when the narrator tries to stroke her.

It’s better like that. She must never learn how pleasant it is to be stroked. It could confuse her healthy little cat brain far too much. She should remain free and brave, full of hatred against those who make her suffer; only hatred and caution can keep her alive. I say to her: ‘Don’t trust anyone, Cat, they only want to torture you and kill all your babies. Stay all by yourself, Cat. At some point they will catch you and try to sell your hide, but it’s not as bad to be killed by your enemy as it is to be killed by your friend.’

There is something in the very simple, clear German text (I don’t know if I’ve succeeded in conveying that in my quick translations) that just skirts tragedy but is not at all self-pitying or self-indulgent, something that feels so profoundly true and human. Reading this while also reading Cărtărescu’s Solenoid, which is also a deep dive into a troubled psyche, I couldn’t help but think how much more concise and pared down the woman writer is – and thus all the more effective (to my mind).

I read it in German, but the book is available in English from Quartet Books, translated by Amanda Prantera. Also, you don’t want to miss Vishy’s superb review of this book (Vishy has loved her for far longer than I have), while Anthony from Time’s Flow Stemmed describes it as ‘close as you can get to immaculate’. Dorian Stuber has also written a great review of her more famous work The Wall.

I was planning to read some other novellas for Novellas in November and for German Literature Month, but I might end up reading Haushofer’s biography instead.

Incoming Books

Whenever I am worried about the state of the world, or my family, or my health, I build a wall of books around me. So, needless to say, October has been a month of intensive book acquisition.

Starting from the top, a book by an Austrian writer Franz Schuh, whose latest book of essays (somewhat in the acerbic satirical tradition of Karl Kraus) was written during the pandemic. The title is certainly quite a sobering one Lachen und Sterben (Laughing and Dying). I will be reviewing this for the Austrian Riveter produced by the EuroLitNetwork. I love it, but will it work for someone who is not as partial to Viennese humour and cynicism as myself?

A Quebecois journalist, travel writer and novelist next: Isabelle Grégoire. I’ve actually received two novels by her from a translator friend: Fille de Fer (The Iron Maiden? – not pictured here) is set on the railway lines of the very far north of Canada, while Vert comme l’enfer (Green Like Hell) is set at least partly in the Amazonian jungle.

Scottish writer Iain Hood’s Every Trick in the Book was a very kind present from Karen (whom you might know as Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings). She reviewed it on her blog, and I thought it sounded quite amusing and very clever.

The Haunted Hotel is the first of two Wilkie Collins acquisitions this month, inspired no doubt by Eleanor Franzen’s deep dive into this author. I had to buy his best-known novel, The Woman in White, too, because I realised that although it is one of my favourite English 19th century novels, I do not actually own a copy of it. You can’t go wrong with the very pretty, tactile Alma Classics editions, which often have some bonus material at the end of each book.

I think it was in an Australian contributor’s #6Degrees of Separation post (and I apologise, I cannot remember exactly who it was) that I came across the book Women of a Certain Rage, a collection of personal stories and essays about angry women by Australian women writers, introduced by Liz Byrski. Women openly expressing their rage is still perceived as so unseemly, so dull, so unnatural, and it makes me seethe (just like my mother’s admonishments: sit nicely, speak softly, don’t frown, don’t raise your voice, don’t lose your temper).

I have become a complete Marlen Haushofer fan and had been meaning to buy her biography for ages (or at least since I attended a conference about her work). Written by Daniela Strigl, its title is a quote from the author herself: ‘Wahrscheinlich bin ich verrückt…’ (I may well be crazy). I also bought her novella Die Mansarde (The Attic Room) and will probably read it asap for German Lit Month and Novella in November.

I’ve loved Lissa Evans‘ Old Baggage and Crooked Heart, so I acquired V for Victory on my Kindle soon after it came out. However, I never got round to reading it and when I saw a hardback at my library, I thought I would prefer to read it in this format. I am already 40 pages in and it’s proving the perfect comfort read.

Not one but two Bloomsbury books next. I used to joke in my 20s that if I ever appeared on Mastermind, the Bloomsbury Group would be my specialist subject. But in the meantime, there have been quite a lot of new books published about them, as they seem to be a perpetual source of fascination, scandal and gossip even with this generation. I have read Frances Spalding’s biography of Vanessa Bell, but thought it might be nice to own it, but I did not know about the biography of David (Bunny) Garnett, Bloomsbury’s Outsider by Sarah Knights, and am curious to see if my rather negative opinion of him will be swayed in any way.

Yet another chunky biography, this time of the problematic but hugely talented Austrian writer Joseph Roth, Endless Flight by Keiron Pim. This is turning out to be quite an Austrian acquisition month, isn’t it?

Finally, another library book, one I had to wait for, the ever-popular Anthony Horowitz with his latest Hawthorne mystery A Twist of the Knife, in which the author as ever makes an appearance as a somewhat egocentric, hapless participant, this time accused of murder because a critic panned his play on opening night. Great escapist fun!

I have also acquired some e-books, either buying them directly or from Netgalley. These are mostly light reads, perfect for cosy evenings under the electric blanket.

Kirsten Miller: The Change – a quiet Long Island community is shaken out of its complacency when three menopausal women find unusual means of empowerment. Sounds like a laugh, very Hocus Pocus or Practical Magic.

Susi Holliday: The Hike – two bickering sisters and their husbands go on a hiking trip to Switzerland but only two make it down the mountain. How can I resist the scenery and the premise (makes me glad to be an only child, right?).

Tom Hindle: The Murder Game – one house, nine guests for a murder mystery fun evening, trapped by the snow, very Golden Age feel to this one

Machado de Assis: The Looking Glass. Essential Stories (transl Daniel Hahn) – I’m terribly fond of this Brazilian writer, and these stories sound spooky, slightly sinister, quite bonkers. I still want to get hold of his novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, but am not sure which of two translations to get (probably the Margaret Jull Costa one).

Jo Callaghan: In the Blink of an Eye – I had the pleasure of hearing Jo read a little from this at the Bay Tales Noir at the Bar Halloween Special (where our author Jonina Leosdottir also read from her novel Deceit). It sounds like a fantastic slightly speculative crime novel: a real-life policewoman partnered with an AI officer.

Keigo Higashino: A Death in Tokyo – after rereading his Malice for our Crime Book Club, I couldn’t resist finding something new by this clever Japanese author with a great insight into the darkest depth of the human psyche.

Gregg Olsen: Starvation Heights – I don’t usually read much true crime, but this one’s a little different, about a sanatorium for ‘fasting cures’ in the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century. This one does sound grim, rather than comfort reading, so I might leave it for later.

Best of the Year: Delving Deeper

I just can’t seem to stop reading this year – more than 160 books this year! So obviously, a simple Top Ten List won’t do for me. This is yet another of my posts by categories, this time of authors that I have enjoyed in the past and finally got a chance to read more.

Yuko Tsushima: The Shooting Gallery and Of Dogs and Walls, transl. Geraldine Harcourt

Not just the daughter of my favourite Japanese writer, but an astounding writer in her own right. It’s a puzzle to me why she is not better known in the English-speaking world, even though she had been translated in the 1980s, but wondered if it was…

 … perhaps she did not fit in well with the narrative of the Japanese economic miracle and boom years. She was not ‘exotic’ enough, not ‘other’ enough. She was not writing about cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums (although she does write about a chrysanthemum beetle). Her protagonists were usually single mothers, struggling to bring up children in a society that was often belittling and marginalising them. Perhaps too relatable the world over… although with additional pressures in Japan.

I was very moved to read her rather personal stories (or are they really all that autobiographical?) about her own family, which are especially poignant in the two stories Of Dogs and Walls.

A mother who hated and feared the outside world as she held her children tight, and who faced that world with disdain, adamant that no one was going to look down on her: that’s who raised me. I grew up tutored in what happened if you trusted outsiders, taught that solitude was the only weapon of defence.

Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman

One of my absolute favourite writers. I have all her books on my bedside table, but there are still one or two of her novels that I haven’t read (because they were out of print for a long while). Now, thanks to the Penguin Classic reprint, I had the opportunity to read this tale of claustrophobia and manipulation, of growing up and trying to fit in.

I remain constantly stunned by how much Shirley Jackson was ‘of her time’, describing the claustrophobic environment for housewives and the limited possibilities for women in the 1950s, and yet how utterly contemporary she still feels in style, at once sly and sinister, detached yet capable of getting fully under your skin and never quite letting you go.

Marlen Haushofer: We Kill Stella

Despite my love of Austrian literature, I only discovered Haushofer last year, when The Wall seemed the perfect companion piece to a pandemic. I have since made an effort to acquire most of her work in German and this novella bears all the hallmarks of her disquieting style, a quietly simmering surface hiding real horrors beneath.

It is incredible how much the author manages to fit into very few pages, how complex the thought processes are, and how much there is to read between the lines. Every word counts with Marlen Haushofer. This is tightrope walking on the very edge of the precipice (or the verge of a mental breakdown) and you keep reading to see just how the narrator can pull it off.

Javier Marias: The Infatuations, transl. Margaret Jull Costa

Another author whose books I instantly acquired upon first discovering him, but never quite got around to reading more. This year I finally cracked open the less intimidating standalone The Infatuations and once more allowed myself to be lulled by that apparently meandering, baroque style.

Marias is a master at playing with the readers, misleading them and then pulling the rug from under their feet. Yet, underneath all that mischief and apparently aimlessly meandering style, there are some very serious questions being asked (and no clear answers being given) about what sort of world we live in – where the strongest and most ruthless seem destined to win – and whether the truth will indeed set us free.

David Peace: Tokyo Redux

The final part in the Tokyo trilogy has been a long time coming, so I simply had to get hold of it as soon as it came out this year. David Peace is a bit of a marmite author – and I have to admit that his style can get occasionally grating at times, with its excessive use of repetitions and oral effects. However, this book is a triumph, striking just the right balance of mystery and self-unravelling, of conspiracy and societal transformation.

You can see how easy it is to mock this style or the solemnity of the author. But he manages to convey a sense of the melancholy complexity and unresolvedness of life which always grips and fascinates me. This is Tokyo in black-and-white film setting, a Kurosawa film with a jazz improv soundtrack, a world-weary Cowboy Bebop space cowboy vibe (it’s hard to believe that David Peace won’t have been influenced by that classic anime), and I have to admit I rather love it and admire his willingness to experiment and go his own path.

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude, transl. Michael Henry Heim

A slim volume, but containing so many layers, so many ideas that I will no doubt have to reread it many times to fully grasp it. Quite unforgettable, this story of a humble paper-compactor who has learnt so much from the books he is pulping, and whose work is about to become automated.

Much of the action takes place in cellars, underground, there is a lot of dirt and danger, there is even sacrifice, for example the small mice that regularly get compacted together with the paper. But there is also indifference to that sacrifice. The author repeatedly refers to the sewers of Prague, the scene of a senseless war between two armies of rats. He often shows university-educated men who are doing back-breaking manual labour, even refers to them as ‘Prague’s fallen angels… who have lost a battle they never fought’

Now that I see all my favourites in this category listed together, I realise they all have the common theme of the solitary protagonist, often an outsider, a person who is a little uncomfortable with society as it is, who questions things, who is often crushed, but very, very occasionally might rise – maybe not triumphant, but at least surviving.

#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Marlen Haushofer

Marlen Haushofer: Wir töten Stella (We Kill Stella). [And a special review bonus: Sara Gran’s Come Closer]

Marlen Haushofer is the high priestess of succinct, almost detached narration that conceals something profoundly moving and horrific. This 54 page novella will pierce your heart and mess with your mind – if you can read it in German, because, alas, it has not been translated into English. You can, however, try and catch a filmed version of it (translated as Killing Stella) directed by Julian Roman Pölsler, who also directed The Wall based on Marlen Haushofer’s far more famous novel. You can catch a short trailer for the film below (in German, also).

The plot is simple: the narrator Anna remembers the past year or so, and how the death of young Stella came about. We know from the outset that Stella died and that our narrator feels somehow responsible for this, so I’m not divulging any spoilers.

Stella is the daughter of an old friend of the narrator Luise (‘frenemy’ would be the more correct term, as Anna despises her desperate attempts to remain young and sexually desirable) and comes to live with the narrator and her family for a year, so that she can attend a commercial school in the city. Initially, the family (Anna, her husband Richard, their fifteen year old son Wolfgang and their younger daughter Annette) are slightly annoyed and amused by the ‘country bumpkin’. Stella is bored with her studies, but seems to have no other passions or interests, dresses badly, and appears incurably naive, shy and polite. Despite Richard’s derision of her, they end up having an affair – a situation that Anna was almost expecting, but that she feels unable to stop. When Richard, an inveterate womaniser, moves on, Stella struggles to accept the situation, especially since she has been forced into an abortion too, and commits suicide – or it could have been an accident, as the family reassures itself hastily. The ‘we’ in the title is significant – every member of the family has had a part to play in driving Stella to her death.

It’s a simple story, but what is fascinating is the ambiguity of Anna as a narrator, and the strange, detached, almost other-worldly voice that Haushofer gives her. Anna is telling this story in first person, while she looks out of the window into the garden – something she does for hours on end, She prefers that to actually going into the garden itself, which has always proved disappointing – she prefers to have that distance and the glass wall between her and reality. She notices a baby bird that seems to have fallen out of its nest, and is struggling to move and calling for its mother. Anna keeps telling herself that the mother cannot be that far away, that she will show up and help, but as the day goes on, the cries of the bird get more desperate, and then weaker. The baby bird dies on Anna’s watch, yet not for a moment does Anna step outside into the garden to attempt to rescue it in any way, in a horrible but telling parallel to the story about Stella. ‘I cannot help him [the bird] and therefore I must try to forget him.’

It’s all too easy to write Anna off as an unreliable narrator, but if she is one, it is because she herself is conflicted and nowhere near as in control as she would like to be. From the very outset, we hear that Anna’s nerves are shot to pieces, that she has become fearful, agoraphobic, almost paranoid – all clear manifestations of guilt. At the same time, she refuses to delve too deeply into her complicity, all she wants is for life to return to ‘normal’. Yet what is normal in this ‘good’ bourgeois household of the 1950s, in conservative, Catholic Austria?

Haushofer is too clever to give us a definitive explanation for Anna’s passive nature, but there are many hints. Anna is treated like property by her husband, whom she seems to fear and tolerate rather than love. She has often thought of escaping her marriage, but is either too afraid, feels too useless, or else has become too cynical about the outside world. She is unhealthily obsessed with her son and fears losing his love and respect more than anything else. Her daughter reminds her too much of her husband, she is one of nature’s sunny, thoughtless people. ‘Annette is too healthy and happy for me to truly love her’, Anna observes, while she herself overanalyses everything, and is therefore stuck in analysis paralysis. She also seems to harbour some suicidal thoughts, almost envying Stella for her ability to break free of this burden called life… and resigning oneself to an unfulfilled life.

I read somewhere that you can get used to anything and that the force of habit is the strongest force in our lives. I don’t believe that. I think that is just an excuse that we use, so that we don’t have to think about other peoples’ suffering, or indeed about our own suffering. It is true that humans can bear a lot of things, but it’s not because they get used to it, but because within them there is a faint spark of hope that some day they might break free of the habit… If the first attempt to break free is unsuccessful – and it usually is – then we try again, but the second impulse is weaker, and leaves us even more bitter and beaten up.

And so Richard continues to down his red wine, and chases after women and money, my friend Luise continues to chat up men young enough that she could be their mother, while I continue to stand in front of the window and stare out into the garden. Stella, this stupid young person, was successful at her very first attempt at escape.

My own translation.

You could argue that female emancipation has come a long way since the 1950s, but I still know so many women (not just of the older generation, but of my age and younger) who are clinging onto unsatisfactory relationships for the sake of the children or for financial reasons, and tell themselves stories that enable them to continue to lead their lives without rocking the boat too much.

It is incredible how much the author manages to fit into very few pages, how complex the thought processes are, and how much there is to read between the lines. Every word counts with Marlen Haushofer. This is tightrope walking on the very edge of the precipice (or the verge of a mental breakdown) and you keep reading to see just how the narrator can pull it off.

Sara Gran: Come Closer

The ambiguous narrator in Gran’s short novel (almost a novella, 165 pages with lots of blank spaces) is not just on the verge of a mental breakdown, but actually plunges into it before our (horrified) eyes – or rather, into demonic possession. Amanda is a successful architect who has just moved into a rather lovely loft apartment with her husband. It starts off with unexplained tapping noises, escalates with unprofessional conduct at work, uncontrollable urges to shoplift or hurt others, start smoking again or hooking up with strangers in bars. And it just gets more and more self-destructive and dangerous to others from there onwards. Amanda thinks she knows her demon, a beautiful wild woman called Naamah, and she makes sporadic efforts to exorcise her, but at other times she is exhilarated by the things the demon makes her do… and we start to wonder if it isn’t a split personality or some form of schizophrenia. Or perhaps another attempt at escape – a far more active one than Marlen Haushofer’s Anna.

Of course she fought at first. They all do. And then they see the possibilities and they’re happy to go along. She could have gone on forever, in her small lonely life. But sometimes the door to a bigger life opens, and it isn’t so easy to say No. You can’t spend your whole life saying No. Sometimes you have to say Yes, and see where it takes you.

I love the ambiguity of it, that there are hints at Amanda’s past or the small dissatisfactions in her present-day life which might make her susceptible to ‘demon attacks’. This book too has a real sense of malevolence and menace, although the horror is more graphic than in Marlen Haushofer’s work. Both authors, however, have a slightly detached, almost deadpan style at times, the kind of voice I can hear echoing for days afterwards in my head. Ultimately, just like with We Kill Stella, this book refuses to give us any clear-cut answers. Both these stories fit into a long line of prestigious ‘uncanny’ portrayals of the female psyche by such writers as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson or, more recently, Carmen Maria Machado.

Annual Summary: Classic Reads

This year I felt the need to find comfort in the classics, some of them new, some of them rereads, and some classics I had previously attempted and abandoned. My definition of classics is quite broad, so you will find both 19th and 20th century books in here, and from all countries. 28 of my 127 books were classics of some description (29 if you count The Karamazov Brothers, which I’m currently reading and hope to finish by the start of January), and 17 of those will be mentioned below – which just goes to show that the ‘success rate’ is much higher with the classics.

Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – it’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with these very Japanese ghost stories, even though some of them made me furious at the classist and sexist assumptions of the time.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – utterly heartbreaking and very thoughtful story of parenthood but also a moving portrait of post-war France, one of my favourite Persephones so far

Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters – I sometimes find Bernhard a bit much to take in, too grumpy, but this book is so good at poking holes in the Viennese literary and artistic pretentiousness, that I laughed nearly all the way through

Henry James: The American – one of the few James that I’d never read, an earlier one, and much lighter, frothier and funnier than I remembered him

Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro – another grumpy old man reminiscing about his life, like Bernhard, and another tragicomic masterpiece

Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – another portrait of a post-war European city, and a strange little love story, full of subtle, skilled observations

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Caravaners – if ever there was a book to distract you from lockdown, this is the one. Hilarious, sarcastic, and reminding you that a bad holiday is worse than no holiday at all!

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – an ingenious role reversal story from Persephone, thought-provoking and surprisingly modern

Barbellion: Journal of a Disappointed Man – courtesy of Backlisted Podcast, I reacquainted myself with this diary of a complex character, struggling to be courageous, often self-pitying, and usually ferociously funny

Marlen Haushofer: The Wall – simply blew me away – again, perfect novel about and for solitary confinement

Teffi: Subtly Worded – ranging from the sublime to the absurd, from angry to sarcastic to lyrical, tackling all subjects and different cultures, a great collection of journalistic and fictional pieces

Defoe: Journal of the Plague Year – such frightening parallels to the present-day – a great work of what one might call creative non-fiction

Romain Gary: Les Racines du ciel – not just for those passionate about elephants or conservationism, this is the story of delusions and idealism, colonialism and crushed dreams, appropriation of stories and people for your own purposes

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels – both very funny and yet with an underlying sense of seriousness, of wonder – and of course set in my beloved Cambridge

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – even more heartbreaking when you reread it at this age

Liviu Rebreanu: The Forest of the Hanged – Dostoevsky meets Remarque meets Wilfred Owen, a book which never fails to send shivers down my spine

Anton Chekhov: Sakhalin Island – possibly the greatest revelation of the year, alongside Defoe. Stunning, engaged writing, and so much compassion.

What strikes me looking at all of the above is how many of these books that I naturally gravitated towards this year are all about showing compassion and helping others, about the bond with the natural world, about not allowing yourself to despair at the horrors that human beings bring upon themselves. I’ve been thinking about that mysterious gate in the wall of the college, and how it opened at just the right time – and that’s what all these books have allowed me to do. They’ve provided me with the perfect escape and encouragement whenever I needed them most. If you’ve missed my crime fiction round-up, it is here. I will also do a contemporary fiction round-up after Boxing Day.

I wish all of you who celebrate Christmas as happy a time as possible under the circumstances. I’ll be back before the start of the New Year with some further reading and film summaries, but until then, stay safe and healthy, all my love from me to you!

#GermanLitMonth: Marlen Haushofer

This is a good year to be reading Marlen Haushofer: 100 years since her birth and 50 years since her death. I wasn’t aware of these anniversaries but finally got to read her best-known work The Wall a few months ago and was blown away by its mix of vivid description, eerie atmosphere and philosophical/ecological musings. I’ve been keen to read anything and everything by Haushofer since, but was disappointed to find that, although her output for adults is reasonably small, it is not exactly easy to find even in German. I think her biographer Daniela Strigl is quite right to criticise the publishers for falling asleep on the job and missing this opportunity.

The truth is that, beyond her tales for children, which were frequently read in Austrian schools when I was a child, her work has always been a minority taste. She was very much admired but not widely read, although she enjoyed a brief renaissance as a feminist icon in the 1970s/80s. Her current book covers don’t do her any favours either, as they make it look like romantic (which many people misread as sentimental) fiction for and about women. Not that there is anything wrong with that kind of fiction, but it puts off a wider audience.

So I should say that Haushofer is in fact the anti-romantic writer. She depicts human loneliness (yes, particularly for women, but more generally as well) like no other writer I know. The loneliness can be physical (as it is in The Wall), but, equally, it can be the devastating loneliness of being in a relationship, or living in a crowded city, or being in a group of friends and still feeling misunderstood.

Die Tapetentür (translated as The Jib Door, but I have no idea what that means so I translated it as The Wallpaper Door – a concealed door in the wallpaper) is the story of Annette, a quiet, introverted, solitary librarian. She has had some relationships with men, but is quite relieved when things go nowhere or the men move away. She enjoys her life and routine, has one good friend and a few acquaintances whom she either respects or secretly mocks.

She is shaken out of her contentment when she meets the lawyer Gregor, who is temperamentally almost her exact opposite – extroverted, a womaniser, a bit of a macho man, who doesn’t enjoy reading or being quiet. In spite of her misgivings, she marries Gregor and expects a child. She is not entirely convinced she will be a good mother, but she is both fascinated and repulsed by the animal response and change in her body. She seems resigned to the traditional division of labour and gender roles in the household, even though she resents Gregor for cheating on her and not being more tender and understanding.

The narrative switches between close third person POV and Annette’s diary entries, so we get to see both her behaviour in social situations, but also see her anxieties and doubts reflected in her journal. She also muses about life more generally and makes some witty observations about society, single and married people, even wealth and poverty. The concealed door that Annette suddenly sees in the wallpaper (she is the only one that notices the door, so it probably is a metaphorical rather than a literal one) represents perhaps the wall that Annette has put up between herself and others, and a door that she is unable or unwilling to walk through in the battle of the sexes.

#WITMonth: Marlen Haushofer

It’s not often that you have the privilege and delight to start off the Women in Translations with two books of such high calibre, books that will stay with you forever. After Tokarczuk’s modern fable about humans vs. animals, I moved on to The Wall by Austrian Marlen Haushofer. Once again, it was a book that so many people had been recommending, including my childhood friend who now lives in Berlin, so that’s where I finally bought it a couple of years ago.

This time my reluctance to read it was not because I thought I’d enjoy it, but because I feared I might not (and I’d have to admit that to all my friends who loved it).  I thought the premise sounded deadly dull: a woman wakes up to find she is the only survivor in a small portion of the Austrian Alps, sealed off from the rest of the world by a transparent wall. The rest of the book describes her daily life over the course of the seasons, her struggle to survive, a sort of female Robinson Crusoe, with only a dog, a cat and a cow as her companions, and a lot of hard work that she has to learn to do: chopping wood, growing potatoes, scything the long grass to produce hay and so on.

And yet this relatively short and simple story is anything but dull. She keeps a sort of notebook of her experiences, not a diary but a story written a couple of years after she started her hermit lifestyle, so there is a sense of foreshadowing throughout. Both the unnamed narrator and the reader are forced to slow down, to think about time in a very different way, to become one with nature and the seasons. The descriptions of the natural world and the loving observations of animal behaviour are very moving, almost magical. The empathy that the woman develops with her animals, choosing her duty towards them over any attempt to ‘escape’ from the enclosure, is one of the things which reminded me of Tokarczuk’s work (and I wonder if the Polish writer was inspired by the Austrian one). Haushofer’s father was a forest ranger and she spent her summers in early childhood roaming on the Alps a bit like Heidi, which would explain her profound love of nature (although she admitted she relied on her brother’s expertise in botany and animal husbandry while writing the book).

Photo of the author on the cover of a biography entitled ‘I’m possibly crazy’, which I think I might have to get…

The narrator shares this quiet sense of acceptance and even contentment with the author. I gather Haushofer’s life was not all that happy. Growing up and studying during the Second World War in an Austria that rather conveniently forgot its Nazi proclivities after the war, she divorced and later remarried her dentist husband, helped him out in his work and raised two children. She was hugely respected by her contemporaries, won several literary prizes, but (whether out of a sense of bourgeois guilt or whatever), always put her family first. She was frustrated that she did not have enough time to write but, modestly, never made a big fuss about it. She was a contemporary of Ingeborg Bachmann, but was forgotten for a while, although Elfriede Jelinek considered her a source of inspiration.

The book has been interpreted as a description of some sort of psychological breakdown or depression. It has also been interpreted as a feminist or ecological tract or anti-nuclear manifesto. It can be all of those things, but to me it’s about a journey of self-discovery: just what are you capable of in extremis, what inner reserves can you have and how do you find peace despite suffering pain and loss, despite being confronted daily with your mortality.

Time is the main character really in this book: it seems to stand still, and yet we can feel its passing, in the seasons, in the animals and the body growing old.

I sit at the table and time stands still. I cannot see it, smell it or hear it, but it surrounds me on all sides. The stillness, the lack of movement, is frightening. I jump up, run out of the house and try to escape it. I do something, things move on and I forget about time. But then, all of a sudden, it surrounds me once more. I might be standing in front of the house and looking at the crows, and there it is again, invisible and silent, holding us firmly – the field, the crows and myself. I’ll have to get used to it, to its indifference and constant presence. It spins out into infinity like a spider web…

[own translation]

It was particularly moving to read this book in a state of almost lockdown, alone in the house without the children, merely the cats for company, but overall I did not find it depressing, although I may have cried once or twice when I heard about the fate of one or the other of the animals. I read the book in German, but it has been translated into English by Shaun Whiteside and published by Cleis Books and then reissued in 2013 by Quartet Books after the success of the film adaptation.

I enjoyed this book so much that I instantly ordered a couple more books by Marlen Haushofer (unfortunately, only available in German). What is it about these Austrians, that they seem to see into my very soul (or has my soul been corrupted by growing up in Austria)? It’s a book that will certainly stay with me all my life.

The Translated Literature Book Tag

I saw a blog post this week on Portuguese reader Susana’s blog A Bag Full of Stories, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to tag myself and take part. As you know, I am very opinionated when it comes to translations!

A translated novel you would recommend to everyone

Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (trans. Thomas Teal) is such a deceptively simple story of village life in winter and the friendship between two women, but it is full of undercurrents, ambiguity, darkness. Of course, if you haven’t read Tove Jansson at all, then I suggest you start with the Moomins, which are just as wonderful for grown-ups as they are for children.

A recently read “old” translated novel you enjoyed

The Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, which was the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, was even better than I expected.

A translated book you could not get into

Everybody knows that my Achilles heel is The Brothers Karamazov, which is ironic, given that I love everything else that Dostoevsky wrote (and generally prefer him to Tolstoy). I have bought myself a new copy of it and will attempt it again (for the 5th time?).

Your most anticipated translated novel release

This is a little under the radar, but it sounds fascinating: Istros Books (one of my favourite publishers, for its brave championing of a part of Europe that is still woefully under-translated) is bringing out The Trap by Ludovic Bruckstein, a Romanian Jewish writer virtually unknown to me (because he emigrated in 1970 and was declared persona non grata in Romania). The book is made up of two novellas, offering, as the publisher blurb goes, ‘a fascinating depiction of rural life in the Carpathians around the time of the Second World War, tracing the chilling descent into disorder and fear of two cosmopolitan communities that had hitherto appeared to be havens of religious and racial acceptance’. The official launch will take place on 26th of September in London and you bet that I’ll be there!

A “foreign-language” author you would love to read more of

I only discovered Argentinean author Cesar Aira in 2018, and he is so vastly prolific (and reasonably frequently translated) that I have quite a task ahead of me to catch up. His novels are exhilarating, slightly mad and, most importantly, quite short.

A translated novel which you consider to be better that the film

Movie still from Gigi.

Not many people will agree with me, but I prefer the very short novella Gigi by Colette to the famous musical version of it, starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. The book’s ending is much more open to interpretation and makes you doubt the long-term happiness of young Gigi. It can be read as a satire and critique of the shallow world of Parisian society and the limited choices women had within it at the time.

A translated “philosophical” fiction book you recommend

Not sure I’ve read many of those! Reading biographies of philosophers or their actual work is more fun. The only example I can think of, and which I enjoyed at the time but haven’t reread in years, is Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, transl. Paulette Moller.

A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long

Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (trans. Shaun Whiteside) is a post-apocalyptic novel with a difference. I’ve been meaning to read this much praised novel forever, but in the original, so I finally bought it in Berlin last year… and still haven’t got around to reading it.

A popular translated fiction book you have not read yet

Korean fiction seems to be having a moment in the sun right now (thanks to a great influx of funding for translation and publication), especially the author Han Kang. I haven’t read the ever-popular The Vegetarian but her more recently translated one Human Acts (trans. Deborah Smith) sounds more on my wavelength, with its examination of policital dissent and its repercussions.

A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischwili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin is perhaps far too intimidatingly long (1000 pages) for me to read, but it sounds epic: six generations of a Georgian family living through the turbulent Soviet 20th century.