Summary of Cultural Events 18 March

The tango show that I had to rebook because of the snow took place thankfully on Thursday, rather than this weekend (which is once again snowy). So I could enjoy watching Tango After Dark at the Peacock Theatre, with five tanguero couples and a live band on stage. Two hours of continuous tango music and dancing may not be everyone’s cup of tea: it does perhaps lack the variety that a ballet performance might have, but for me (a very dilettante tango fan) it was sheer pleasure. With the mournful sound of the violin and the accordeon (or a smaller version thereof, the bandoneon), the change of rhythm between languorous leans and lifts and the staccato whipping of the legs between the partner’s legs – it was so polished, accurate and captivating. I really have to restart my tango classes! And the women’s endless legs seemed to be endlessly flexible…

I also discovered a place that serves genuine Viennese desserts nearby: Delaunay on Aldwych, which claims to be inspired by the grand grand cafés of Mittel-Europe. I had my first ever Kaiserschmarr’n outside Vienna and I might go there again soon to explore the coffee menu, see if they have my beloved Melange or Fiaker, and eat a Topfenstrudel while reading Horvath’s Tales from the Vienna Woods. What a find! It will spell disaster for my waist line.

On Friday I celebrated St Patrick’s Day with a small-scale whisky tasting at my house (well, I didn’t visit the Jameson distillery for nothing, did I?) with two friends, while watching Call Me By Your Name. While I didn’t care much for the character portrayed by Armie Hammer (who is not physically my type anyway, but my friends were drooling over him), I was utterly beguiled and captivated by the very vulnerable and tender portrayal of Elio by Timothée Chalamet (with his gawky, immature teenage body and a face with emotions passing like clouds on it all the time). I was very glad though that my older son decided he didn’t want to watch the film with us…

Although I joked about wanting to adopt Timothée, his multilingual, multicultural sensibilities struck a chord and I could see a lot of my older son in him in a few years’ time.

Movie still from Variety.

No new book acquisitions this week, you (or my shelves) will be relieved to hear.

Other cultural events happening over the next week or two that I have heard are well worth your time: the RSC’s West African production of Hamlet at the Hackney Empire runs until end of March, while the Philarmonia will be performing works from Bolshevik Russia (surprisingly timely that, right?) on the 22nd of March at the Southbank.

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Ricarda Huch: The Last Summer – Germany #EU27Project

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.

Ricarda Huch, around 1914.
Ricarda Huch, around 1914.

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.

last_summer_web_0_220_330-1Although 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.

I really enjoyed the review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, which appeared just before I embarked upon this book.

Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned… against my TBR pile. I had plenty of good reads waiting for me there. I had plenty of reviews begging to be written. But then I went to the library and saw this book just freshly in:

MindofWinterI remembered the intriguing review of this book that I read over on Caroline’s blog, so I couldn’t resist. I brought it home on Wednesday, started it that very evening, had to lay it aside during the day on Thursday but woke up early this morning to finish it. And I don’t regret it gate crashing my party at all! But it’s going to be quite a lengthy review, so be brave! It got me so busy analysing it from all angles.

It’s the kind of novel where nothing much happens: essentially, it’s about a mother and a daughter alone in a house in a snowstorm. Yet the suspense is so cleverly built up, so well handled, that you find yourself unable to let go. It will haunt you even after you put it down. It’s a bit like a well-made horror film (although there is really no overt horror here, it’s all in the mind – of the protagonists and of the reader). The chill factor is cranked up and, just as you think you can handle it no more, or that it’s nearing an explosion, things revert back to normality. Or a semblance of normality. You start to question everything, because you begin to realise that the narrator, poet and mother Holly Judge, may not be your most reliable witness or interpreter of events.

Cover of hardback edition. Which do you prefer?
Cover of hardback edition. Which do you prefer?

Yet it’s not really a novel to be rushed through. I will probably go back and read it again to really savour the language and the nuances. Every interaction and each sentence seems to be loaded with additional meaning. The author is a poet as well as a novelist, and you can feel her loving attention to details and to the unsayable.

There is so much tension between teenage daughters and their mothers, perhaps even more so when it’s an adopted child. I’ve sometimes stared at my own (biological) children and wondered what strange changelings have taken their place in the cradle. It gets even worse during the adolescent years, hence all the stories of teenage vampires and possessions by poltergeists. Yet the book stays well clear of that, although the reader will always bear that in mind as a possibility.

Holly seems besotted with the beautiful girl they adopted from a Siberian orphanage, but there are hints that all is not well, that there are some resentments, some apportioning of blame. Strange incidents have dogged their lives ever since they came back from Russia. Even though she is quick to say:

Not Baby Tatty!… Not Tatty the Beauty. Gorgeous Russian dancer, howler monkey, sweetheart, wanderer, love of their lives. Not Tatiana.

It does seem like the lady protests too much… After all, what person who has a way with words would call their daughter ‘Tatty’? There are many baffling aspects here, many unanswered questions and gaps. For instance, I would like to find out more about the husband Eric, who is conveniently absent for almost all of the book. He never really comes alive in his own right – we perceive him merely as a reflection of Holly’s own obsessions and needs. There is a hint at some point when she reaches his voicemail and hears something unexpected that she suspects him of being unfaithful. There are a few indications that he does not fully understand his wife nor agree with her:

‘Just sit down and write,’ her husband would say, but Eric would never be able to understand this frustration, her frustration, the clear sense Holly had that there was a secret poem at the center of her brain, and that she’d been born with it, and that she would never, ever, in this life, be able to exhume it, so that to sit down and write was torture. It was to sit down with a collar around her neck growing tighter and tighter the longer she sat.

There are many external circumstances to explain Holly’s anxieties: the early deaths of her mother and her siblings, the genetic flaw which has made her opt for exhaustive surgery and rendered her infertile, the fraught process of adoption from Russia, her writer’s block (which has lasted more than a decade). Although she has made it a tradition to celebrate Christmas at her house, preparing for a large gathering of family and friends, she is also resentful of the fact that she is expected to cater for everyone’s needs. She feels desperately lonely when they all cancel on her because of the blizzard, but at the same time there is a secret sense of relief. Yet the many repetitions (which may annoy some readers, but which come with a subtly different interpretation of events each time) show a mind that is stretched too tight.

French cover. Kasischke seems to be more popular in France than in the US.
French cover. Kasischke seems to be more popular in France than in the US.

It seems to me that what Holly craves is perfection: the perfectly healthy body, the perfect family, the beautiful unblemished child, the idyllic lifestyle complete with chicken and roses… and to be the great poet she had thought she would become. Anything that doesn’t quite live up to the ideal is frowned over, worried over or else deliberately avoided. Holly is very good at self-deceit, at looking away when things become too painful. There is a passage in the book expressing her delight with having learnt in her counselling sessions to suppress her feelings by snapping a rubber band whenever she feels overwhelmed. This is understandable self-preservation, since poets tend to feel everything far too acutely. As Sylvia Plath put it:

My head a moon

Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin

Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.

Ultimately, it’s Sylvia Plath who comes to mind when reading this book, although the title itself is taken from a rather chilling Wallace Stevens poem. The opening line of Plath’s ‘Munich Mannequins’ is quoted here and makes for a fascinating, possibly creepy contrast to what I said above about the obsession with perfection:

Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.

Perhaps because the word ‘perfect’ also occurs in the opening line of Plath’s last poem, I rather anticipated the ending of the book, although there were some additional twists which caught me by surprise. However, this is not a book to be read for its suspense alone (although you may find yourself rushing through it as I did) – it’s a book that can be interpreted and appreciated on many different levels.

Oh, and I’ll be watching out for more of Kasischke’s novels and poetry collections!

 

The Saga of ‘The Lying-Down Room’ by Anna Jaquiery

the-lying-down-roomWhen reviewing for the Crime Fiction Lover website, I tend to get a little possessive about all the books by French authors or set in France. Since I live in this country for the time being, I feel like all of the books remotely connected with France (and its neighbouring countries – my desire for conquest knows no bounds: Germany, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Spain) are mine by rights! So you can imagine my disappointment when someone else nabbed the debut novel set in Paris that everybody had been talking about, The Lying-Down Room by Anna Jaquiery. Of course Raven did a fantastic job of reviewing it, but this could have been me!

So I sensibly did the next best thing. The book was said to be French crime fiction, so I would read it in French – so there! Unfortunately, I could not find it listed in any French bookshop or library in the area or even online on Fnac. I did some further digging and discovered that, although the author was of French origin, she actually has lived all over the world and writes in English. So I bought the book in its original English, read it, was intrigued by its perfect blend of French sensibilities and English crime fiction conventions, and got in touch with the author to beg her to take part in my series on ‘What Got You Hooked on Crime‘.

So you’ll have guessed that I liked the book, but here’s a proper review of it now.

Serial killer tropes have been so overdone in crime fiction, but in this book it’s a little different. The serial killer seems to be targeting inoffensive, somewhat lonely old ladies, who have been a little neglected by their families. What is odd and frightening is these women are laid out and displayed after death in an almost grotesque ritual arrangement. Inspector Serge Morel, himself a complex character with unresolved issues, is looking into these crimes. Struggling with a Paris sweltering in the August heat, understaffed because of holiday season, he and his team – particularly the feisty, bright Lila Markov – struggle to find a motive for these murders and a connection between the women.

The investigative part of the book follows fairly traditional police procedural lines, albeit with strong characterisations. Yes, the Inspector has his problems: the requisite insensitive, media-hungry boss, a father descending into the chaos of Alzheimer’s, and a secret yearning for his first love Mathilde, which crosses the line into stalking. Yes, he has the obligatory strange hobby or quirky trait that fictional detectives need to have nowadays to stand out from the crowd: in this case, it’s origami. Yet none of it feels forced or formulaic – there is a natural flow to his personal story. Morel’s French/Cambodian mixed heritage is only briefly addressed, but will be more prominent in the next book. But I do hope the next book doesn’t lose Lila Markov, who is bristly, smart and utterly no-nonsense, making up for her boss’s occasional fey-ness.

Where the book then differs from standard police procedural is in offering us alternative points of view, including those of the pair who emerge as possible suspects. The middle-aged teacher Armand has a terrible secret from his own youth, while his protegé César is a mute young boy adopted from a Russian state orphanage. There is so much sadness and veracity in this part of the story – it is not at all sensationalised, but rather suffused with a profound melancholy and sense of helplessness. So different from another book I recently read (to be reviewed very shortly for CFL) about religious cults and the children who survive them.

And then there is all the local colour – the small asides and descriptions which place you in Paris and rural France – all done with the insider knowledge of a local, without the sometimes excessive showing-0ff for the sake of the literary tourists. And although it is not exactly French, it is an excellent book to introduce you gently into the world of French crime fiction for those who are unfamiliar with it and put off by its relentless ‘noir’ attitude or quirkiness.

 

Andrei Makine: Music of a Life

Makine1Alexei Berg is a promising young pianist whose parents are imprisoned by the Soviets in 1941, on the eve of his debut concert. He runs away to find family in the west of the Soviet Union, assumes the identity of a dead soldier, becomes the driver and protégé of a Russian general and is taught how to play piano by the general’s daughter once he returns to Russia. He never reveals his real identity or his musical abilities until one day…. And yes, I did find the end of the book too rushed and the love story not entirely convincing. But this is not an epic story, nor a work of suspense. Nor is the story told in quite such a simple manner. Instead, it is told as a story within a story. Our unnamed narrator is trapped by a snowstorm in a remote railway station somewhere in Siberia when he comes across Alexei, now an old man, who tells him the story of his life. And perhaps forever changes his own.

This is not only a beautifully written elegy to a wasted talent, but also a far too familiar account of life, death, survival of human emotions and beauty under the twin evils of dictatorship and war. But it is about more than that: it is about art as the triumph of human spirit, and its suppression robbing us a little of our humanity. It is about music as life and life as music. Or the concert of a lifetime. Or how we only have a limited time on life’s stage. Or how the concert we have planned to play won’t necessarily be the music we end up playing, but there is music there nevertheless if we know how to listen. Or, or, or…

You can see how this short book, gives rise to all sorts of philosophical musings. Let me come back down to earth for an instant. [It’s that Russian soul of profound melancholy speaking to me.] Makine is Russian born and bred, but fled to France at the age of 30. He started writing novels in French, living the poverty-stricken life of ‘La Bohème’ for real, even had to pretend they were translated from Russian in an effort find any publisher. He achieved recognition with Le Testament Français, which won the two highest French literature prizes in 1995. He is one of the most respected writers in France today, has been translated into many languages, but is not all that popular back in Russia. Not surprising, given his frank, sometimes distressing portrayal of Soviet times in many of his novels. And, although he claims in interviews to have no nostalgia for ‘Motherland Russia’, Makine is forever trying to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western Europe. 

Makine2Russia does permeate his works: the sensibility and descriptions are so reminiscent of Russian masterpieces. The door of the waiting-room blasting open and letting the chill air and snow in at the railway station where the characters are waiting for their delayed train. Alexei’s search amongst corpses, both Russian and German, for a plausible fake identity.  It is the individual experience and these single moments of sharp insight that Makine tries to convey, rather than a sweeping panorama of society or a historical period. In a period when we rush to label nations and cultures (he takes exception to the term ‘Homo sovieticus’), the author gives us the example of a single person, not a particularly likeable or heroic person, perhaps not even a musical genius. And somehow this story becomes exemplary, reverberating in the Siberia of your soul long after you finish reading.