I never understood why the Almodovar film was called Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, because my experience with literature has been that it’s mainly the men who are moody, depressed, angry and existentially musing about it. I’ve been reading a lot of books by women lately, but, as coincidence would have it, the three last ones I read were by men in the throes of what might be called a mid-life crisis, even if they are not all middle-aged. And they all take place in different countries: Switzerland, Sweden and Russia.
Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs (My Neighbour Urs)
In this charming collection of apparently harmless little stories about small-town life in Olten, Switzerland, Capus shows us the gnashing teeth under the veneer of politeness. Yet he does it with humour and grace, laughing both at himself and his fellow citizens. This is a gently mocking midlife crisis.
The narrator (or author, the two are very tightly linked) has five neighbours, all called Urs. Actually, there are six of them, but one doesn’t want to appear in a book. They all gather in the square outside their houses on balmy summer evenings and chat about random this and that, and sometimes even about the important things in life. Such as love and divorce, a sense of belonging, wanting to move away, welcoming foreigners … and the differences between the German- and French-speaking Swiss.
‘Your writing thingy, which you call work…’
‘What about it?” I ask.
‘Nothing,’ says Urs. ‘I suppose it must be some kind of work, that what you do. Don’t mind me, I didn’t say anything.’
‘It’s all right, let it be.’
This book was published in 2014 and has not been translated, but several of his earlier books have been translated into English, such as ‘Leon and Louise’, ‘Almost like Spring’ and ‘A Price to Pay’. You can find review of his other books on other blogs, such as Stu Jallen, Lizzy Siddal and Izzy Reads.
Håkan Nesser: The Summer of Kim Novak (transl. Saskia Vogel)
‘It’s going to be a difficult summer’, says Erik’s father at the start of the summer holidays in 1962. He is referring to his wife, Erik’s mother, who is slowly, almost noiselessly slipping away from them with cancer in hospital. But it’s about much more than that, of course, in this heart-breaking account of the coming of age of two 14-year-old boys. They get to spend the summer at the lakeside cottage, together with Erik’s older brother, Henry, former sailor and now freelance journalist, trying to write his first novel. A rural summer made up of small triumphs, everyday pleasures and benign neglect.
It’s a time of learning to cook, of daydreaming about gorgeous women resembling the actress Kim Novak, attending village fairs, reading and raiding the neighbours’ woodpile to build a floating dock. Those long summer days in Sweden, when time seems to stand still, and the adolescents learn about love and lust and violence. It’s not a thriller by any stretch of the imagination, unlike Nesser’s previous work. Instead, it is closely observed, nostalgic without becoming twee, and reveals a stiff upper lip that will resonate with British readers (or other Northern Europeans). Why do I say it’s about midlife crisis? Because it’s the older Erik, now in his forties, who remembers that fateful summer and The Terrible Thing, with all its consequences on his family, friendship and himself.
Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills (transl. Katherine Dovlatov)
You are forewarned from the outset: this is the story of a failing Soviet writer, Boris Alikhanov, sinking into alcoholism, whose wife wants to divorce him and emigrate together with their daughter. In an attempt to patch his life together (or perhaps to get away from it all), he becomes a tour guide on the rural estate of revered national poet Pushkin, now a bustling tourist site. There, he encounters eccentric characters galore, learns how to massage facts and figures to please the tourists, and sinks ever deeper into despondency, indifference and impotent rage. It could be interpreted as the powerlessness and despair of artists having to live under the Soviet system – and not just artists, but the whole population. However, lethargy does not mean lack of feeling, and there is something very poignant about the stylistic restraint of the last few pages of this slim volume.
Every characters seems to have some kind of deadpan humour and are ready to interject philosophically when they are not busy frying their brain cells with drink.
I sat by the door. A waiter with tremendous felted sideburns materialized a minute later.
‘What’s your pleasure?’
‘My pleasure,’ I said, ‘is for everyone to be kind, humble and courteous.’
The waiter, having had his fill of life’s diversity, said nothing.
‘My pleasure is half a glass of vodka, a beer and two sandwiches.’
Boris himself is self-critical, often all too painfully self-aware, but incapable of taking bold steps and either submit to the party line or else become a truly great dissident writer. His wife reproaches him:
Even your love of words – your crazy, unhealthy, pathological love – is fake. It’s nothing more than an attempt to justify the life you lead. And you lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements. With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least…’
‘Do you honestly think he’s a good writer? Perhaps Jack London’s a good writer, too?’
‘Dear God! What does Jack London have to do with this?!…’
You can find a very thoughtful review of this book, complete with a small debate about how to translate colloquialisms, by Guy Savage.
In conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with a little depression, and I enjoyed all of these books. But it always amuses me to see that men’s nervous breakdowns and alcoholic outbursts are associated with great literature, while women’s are treated with disdain and relegated to mere ‘domestic concerns’.
P.S. I’ve just finished a fourth book in the same vein: Pascal Garnier’s ‘Boxes’ and I really think I need a change of decor. Expect some funnier or lighter or just different next reads.