language is our only home

Summer before the dark, by Volker Weidermann and translated by Carol Brown Laneway; Messages from a Lost World, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Will Stone

Pushkin Press have done marvels in restoring an entire generation of lost voices to contemporary English-language readers: Antal Szerb, Ernst Weiss, Arthur Schnitzler, Leo Perutz, Joseph Roth and of course their greatest rediscovery Stefan Zweig.

I say lost voices, but really these are voices which were deliberately silenced. It’s no coincidence that most of them are cut-off in the late 1930s to early 1940s. The Nazis sought to intimidate and destroy all art and culture that wasn’t in service of their own horrific goals. For a while they succeeded, and it’s a tragedy that so few of these writers survived to see how brief that success was and how total the Nazi’s ultimate defeat.

In his Summer Before the Dark, Volker Weidermann takes us to a moment of peace before the coming destruction: 1936 Ostend where a group of émigré writers briefly gathered. Pushkin have simultaneously published Messages from a Lost World, a collection of essays by Stefan Zweig written from the dawn of the first world war to the depths of the second.

SummerBefore ZweigMessages

I’m reviewing these together partly as Pushkin Press published them together and partly because they are such natural companion pieces. Both, as you’d expect from Pushkin, are physically lovely: well made hardbacks with high quality paper and well judged cover designs. They’d make the perfect gift for a melancholic relative…

Summer takes the reader to Ostend in 1936. It’s a rather Proustian middle-class Belgian seaside resort of the sort common before mass cheap airfare existed. The rise of the Nazis has already displaced a great many German language writers with Zweig one of the last to find himself unable to publish in his native tongue.

Over one summer Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Irmgard Keun, Arthur Koestler and many more find themselves briefly together enjoying the cafes and the culture that have always formed the backdrop to their lives. It’s civilised Europe in miniature.

Weidermann skilfully evokes both time and place. It’s easy to picture the writers having passionate arguments about how best to intervene in Franco’s Spain (Koestler is despatched as a sort of amateur-spy) while crafting new manuscripts and falling into new relationships.

The book opens with a previous visit by Zweig to Ostend in 1914. Back then he couldn’t believe war would actually happen and delayed departure, incredulous at the idea that anyone would move beyond posturing to actual conflict. On the last train back he saw cannons being moved to the front – a physical rebuttal of his belief that common interest would outweigh nationalist folly.

In 1936 Roth is again striving for optimism, though it seems to be getting harder. Zweig at this point is a literary superstar. He’s rich and his books are hugely popular and widely translated. Ostend is a haven from his recent troubles in Germany, troubles which he’s been better insulated from to date than most:

Stefan Zweig in the summer of 1936. He looks at the sea through the large window and thinks with a  mixture of pity, reticence and pleasure about the group of displaced men and women he will be rejoining shortly.

Summer reads like a novel, which is both its strength and its weakness. There are no footnotes or endnotes and there’s no references or sources cited. That raises occasional questions about how confident we can be as to its accuracy.

Take the quote above as an example. Zweig “thinks”, but how do we know what he thought? Barring temporal telepathy this is presumably based on Zweig’s letters or a diary or something similar, but letters have an intended recipient, diaries may be written with a view to later publication, neither is entirely reliable as a guide to someone’s actual thoughts.

The question of how Weidermann knows what he writes remains a nagging concern throughout the book. It’s one that the reader just has to accept – I’ve no reason to believe Weidermann hasn’t done his homework and realistically it’s not as if I would have checked the citations had he provided them. Still, it makes this a book better read to get a sense of mood and of the nature of the world that was about to vanish rather than as anything more scholarly.

Read as novelistic-history (ironically something which Zweig hated), Summer reads very well indeed. Weidermann is good at capturing his subjects. Zweig in 1936 wears a pale suit with a well-trimmed moustache and is described as “self-confident, worldly” and “like an elegant shrew in his Sunday best.” By contrast, Roth is  “hunched” and “potbellied”; his moustache is “unkempt” and he “looks like a mournful seal that has wandered accidentally onto dry land.”

RothZweig

Zweig was one of Roth’s early literary heroes, and Weidermann tells a nice anecdote of how long before Roth met Zweig he went on a literary pilgrimage to Zweig’s apartment in Vienna but sadly missed seeing him. Zweig is now a lifeline as well as friend, providing Roth with cash and ensuring that he eats and takes basic care of himself.

Roth is an advanced alcoholic. His legs and feet are badly swollen, to the point where it’s almost impossible for him to put on a pair of shoes. For year’s now he’s had to throw up every morning, sometimes for hours. He eats almost nothing. Going out to a restaurant seems to him as an eccentric waste of money, that only a rich man like Stefan Zweig would dream up. Nevertheless, Zweig tries to convince him to eat a meal day after day. This summer in Ostend it even frequently works.

Both then and now Zweig suffers from being seen (rightly in my view) as the lesser talent. Zweig is a great writer of popular fiction, but Roth is simply a great writer. Still, they usefully collaborate: at one point Zweig struggles with an ending for a novel and Roth writes one for him, leaving Zweig to adapt Roth’s ending and craft it into his own book. I thought that lovely. Zweig gives Roth useful advice too (including on Weights and Measures, which Roth finishes too quickly desperate for the cash it will generate).

It’s no surprise that amidst all the literature and politics there’s sex too. Zweig is in Ostend with his secretary and mistress, Lotte, with whom he would spend the short few remaining years of his life (they ultimately committed suicide together). Roth meets Irmgard Keun (“the only Aryan here” she quips), a writer he encourages though without reading anything she writes. She later says of her first encounter with him “My skin said ‘yes’ immediately”. A line so good that on its own it’s persuaded me to read her work.

The contrast between the two central figures here couldn’t be greater. Zweig is civilised, urbane, bourgeois. No wonder history has been (until recently) a little unkind to him. Roth by contrast is a classic art-monster. He’s arrogant, passionate, filled with crazy dreams and absurd fantasies, self-destructive and yet attractive to women. Zweig has talent; Roth genius.

And yet. While Zweig is ultimately forced to abandon Roth fearing that otherwise he’ll be sucked down with him, overall he comes across as a man who does his best to live up to his own ideals. He’s a good friend to Roth for as long as he can be, and he’s a good man if perhaps a somewhat naive one. I prefer Roth’s work to Zweig’s, but I’d rather have Zweig as a friend than Roth.

It’s perhaps unavoidable in a book like this that reading it one rather wishes one could have been there, and yet the “there” weidermann describes is a terrible place. It’s a spun-sugar fragment of culture amidst an oncoming avalanche of barbarism, and within a few years nearly everyone he writes of will be dead and they’ll mostly die believing that everything they’ve worked for is in ashes.

I read Messages after Summer, and I think that may be the best way round. Messages is a well chosen collection of essays bringing out certain of Zweig’s core concerns: of the need for Europeans to find a common identity; of the merits of cosmopolitanism and humanism over insularity and fear.

Zweig’s themes resonate with me, and remain surprisingly timely as the UK moves towards a referendum vote on whether or not to stay in the EU. I know which way Zweig would have urged us to vote. From 1916:

… some exist who believe that never can a single people, a single nation achieve what a collective of European nations has not through centuries of heroic endeavour; men who ardently believe that this monument must be brought to completion in our Europe, here where it was started, and not in foreign continents like America or Asia.

That quote shouldn’t be taken as Zweig disparaging America or Asia, but first and foremost Zweig is unashamedly a European and it’s Europe that concerns him. If he had lived to see a united Europe I’ve no doubt his ambitions would then have stretched further to a united world, but as he came to see even his little dream of a common European polity proved too much for the era he lived in.

Zweig returns repeatedly in the essays to the myth of the Tower of Babel. To him it represents a dream of human potential – first built in metaphoric stone and now in culture and civilisation. He sees the Tower as a symbol of what can be achieved when people work together and put aside their differences, and as a caution showing how disunity can prevent us reaching the heavens.

The years up to 1914 Zweig sees as a metaphorical rebuilding of the tower, with Europe becoming more than merely a collection of individual nations through a cross-continent mingling of literature and music and art and science. Now as the tide of nationalism steadily grows over the course of these essays, he sees the foundation of the tower once more in danger.

Here’s Zweig in 1939 complaining of how history is taught in schools, and of how that encourages the very nationalism he deplores:

History, which ordinarily signified the highest objectivity, was force-fed into us with the sole aim of making us fine patriots, future soldiers, obedient citizens. We had to show ourselves humble before our own state and its institutions, mistrustful of other countries and races, and we had to agree with the carefully inculcated conviction that our country was better than all the other countries, our soldiers were better than their soldiers, our generals were more courageous than their generals; that our people throughout history had always been in the right and whatever might happen we would always be right: my country,right or wrong.

He goes on to talk about how he was taught history as a sequence of important dates and figures, most of them battles and conquerors. He could have written that about my schooling. Instead he would prefer a history that focuses on the truly important dates and achievements – scientific breakthroughs, notable medical discoveries, the scientists and artists. He wrote this on the eve of a war that would swallow the world, and he knew I think that none of this would be achieved anytime soon or even in his lifetime.

There’s the (very) occasional comic moment, such as in 1931 when he writes that “… the era of the “historical novel”, the blatant falsification of our ancestors’ lives, is now over”, on which note I’m afraid I have bad news for him. Mostly however this is a passionately if impractically argued plea for us to be better than we are. In 1940 he writes of the Vienna that he loves and which is now lost to him, saying:

Art, like culture, cannot prosper without freedom, and the culture of Vienna cannot flourish if it is severed from the vital source of European civilisation.

All of which is as true of Europe as a whole now as it was of the Vienna of his youth. I said above that his pleas were impractical, and often they are, but an excess of practicality can be the enemy of progress and sometimes we need a little impracticality if we’re to make any progress at all.

Other reviews

Not so many yet on the blogosphere that I’m aware of, but Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings wrote up Summer here and Messages here and Lizzy Siddal positively gushes about Summer here (and in answer to her rhetorical question, if one can’t gush on one’s own blog where can one?). If you know of others please flag them (and feel free to link directly) in the comments.

Finally, I should just note that these were review copies sent to me by Pushkin Press. I also have a personal copy of Zweig’s World of Yesterday and having read these now makes me all the more enthusiastic to read that.

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Filed under Essays, German Literature, Pushkin Press, Roth, Joseph, Vienna, Zweig, Stefan

Ansige unreeled the tale of his tribulations, thoroughly ransacking the truth and then dipping into the bag of embellishment and sprinkling with a free hand.

Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord

‘I’m Giana. What’s your name?’

The djombi thought, shrugged and replied, ‘When I am without a shadow, I may be called Constancy-in-Adversity, though others who see me differently have sometimes named me Senseless-Resignation-to-Suffering. I am a small thing, as you can see, but my mother says I am quite powerful in my own way.’

Giana nodded. The names were too large and the concepts too weighty for her to grasp, but the last she could understand. Mothers tended to say things like that, usually just before sending you to the well to fetch water.

RiI

Paama has just left her husband, Ansige, and returned to her home village. She can’t be blamed. Ansige is a foolish glutton. He isn’t a bad man, but he is selfish and silly and his appetite is endless. Paama is a well regarded cook, but Ansige cares more for volume than quality so even that merit of hers is wasted on him.

Ansige and Paama and all humanity’s struggles are watched by the djombi: spirits who are as old as the world itself though not unchanging. Among the djombi is the Indigo Lord, a powerful being that once acted as guide and guardian to mankind but which over the long millennia came to despise us and became our adversary. There are parallels to Lucifer in Western myth.

Now some of the djombi wish to humble the Indigo Lord and to curtail his power, and so they steal from him the Chaos Stick which gives its bearer the ability to control probability itself. They need to find someone who they can trust with such power and who will have the strength of character and the wisdom to wield it safely. They choose Paama.

Ansige is headed to Paama’s village to win her back, accompanied by a caravan full of food and his servants Rahid and Pei. If he gets to Paama too quickly she might not have the space to develop as she needs to for the djombi’s purposes. A trickster spirit in the form of a spider is sent to intervene…

First Rahid bought a drink for them both, and they grew more cheerful. Then Pei bought a drink for them both, and on that they grew indignant, telling tale after tale of the madness that was a man’s life in the service of Ansige. Then a third round arrived, and they did not know who was paying for it but when they looked around, there was a friendly-looking spider of more than average size who raised his glass cheerfully in their direction and indicated with a wave that they should go ahead and drink up on his behalf. Heartened by such a gesture of diplomacy from a representative of the animal kingdom, they toasted him gladly and resumed their tales of woe to each other.

The tale of Ansige the glutton is apparently taken from Senegalese folklore, though it’s only a springboard here for a wider story. The spider-spirit is never named as Anansi, the famous West African character with much in common with Brer Rabbit and Coyote and Bugs Bunny and all those other wonderful mythic tricksters, but it’s clear that’s who he’s based on. Here they mix with a range of other characters mortal and immortal, all of them larger than life and yet all of them still convincingly human (even the ones who aren’t).

What makes it all work is tone. The book is structured like a slightly rambling folk-tale, full of diversions and asides each of which ultimately casts light on the main story. The narrative voice is an opinionated character in its own right and the whole thing is shot through with a warm sense of compassion and humour. At times the narrator addresses the reader (listener?) directly:

I know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer to that is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known? For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase ‘I am a pawnbroker’ in any known human language? Think! These creatures do not truly talk, nor are they truly animals, but they do encounter human folk, and when they do, they carefully take with them all memory of the meeting.

There’s a marvellous mixing here of the ordinary and extraordinary. It’s not quite clear when the novel is set, because it could be set near any-time as befits a semi-fable. There are spirits, but they’re no more fantastic than Ansige and his incredible appetite. The concerns of the villagers are those anyone would have: love; family; what to do with your life.

I grew up to a degree with fantasy and genre fiction, and I’m used to it having a certain sort of protagonist. Young; highly skilled; dangerous to their foes; born to a vital destiny; male. It’s a tedious list. Paama isn’t particularly young, her main skill is her cooking, she has no destiny to speak of and she’s definitely not male. The Indigo Lord threatens her family to convince her to give him back the Chaos Stick and she immediately agrees – why should she endanger her sister’s life for some magical device she never asked for? It’s distinctly unheroic.

The Chaos Lord learns though that there’s a catch. Now Paama has the stick she can only relinquish it to someone she honestly believes deserves it more than she does, and however much she’s threatened she doesn’t believe an ageless demon-lord is a good choice for that kind of power. Reluctantly then he has to take her on a trip showing her why she should give him the stick, and that means for the first time in a very long time he has to get to know a human being. He is pride incarnate, but for once he can’t just demand what he wants and expect to get it.

Here he and Paama find themselves in a cafe, where Paama is surprised to find the Indigo Lord making time for a newspaper and slice of cake by way of a break in their journey.

While she ate, the djombi read from a newspaper and absently snacked on portions of her dessert, ‘just for the taste,’ he said.

‘Why do you read that? I thought that you knew everything,’ she asked.

He gave her one of his unfathomable blank looks. ‘I like to read the paper for the same reason that I like the occasional bit of food – to sample human tastes.’

‘I thought you despised us,’ she said quietly.

His hands squirmed on the folded newspaper. ‘Not despise – not all of human taste is abhorrent. There are bits that are enjoyable.’

‘Like chocolate cake and comic-strip humour?’ she murmured, eyes downcast, with mild sarcasm.

‘Are you eating that last piece of cake?’ he asked, unmoved by her criticism.

There’s no great surprise where the story goes, but there needn’t be as the pleasure here is all in the telling. This is a novel packed with vivid and enjoyable characters: Ansige; Paama; the Indigo Lord; the spider-trickster-spirit; later a hunter who can find any quarry and is hired by a convent of magical nuns to track down what’s happened to Paama. It sounds ludicrous, but then so do most myths and fables where gods wander the Earth disguised as shepherds and foxes on the road disguise themselves as the Buddha. Just because it couldn’t happen doesn’t mean it can’t be true.

Now for two incredibly minor and petty criticisms. Firstly, Karen Lord, cats can’t eat chocolate cake! Chocolate is poisonous to cats. Bad author, bad.

That will make no sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book, but there you go.

The second petty criticism is a formatting issue on the kindle version, which has Karen Lord’s (oddly boastful) bio almost immediately following the end with basically just a paragraph break between the two. That sounds like nothing, but what it meant was that I read straight on from the end and suddenly found myself without any warning in an author bio. The contrast jarred and was surprisingly damaging to the mood Lord had created to that point.

It’s curious how such a minor point of formatting can damage a book, but it did. Not seriously and if I were grading this on Amazon it wouldn’t change the score, but it was irritating and it was avoidable. It was the literary equivalent of going to a classical concert and having some boor shout “Bravo!” the very instant the final notes start fading in the air so that you lose the chance of a moment’s reflection.

As I said though, these are petty points and to end on them alone would be unfair to a charming novel. Redemption in Indigo is a delightful book awash with life and with the chaos of a world that even with undying spirits still looks very much like our own.

Other reviews

David of David’s Book World put me on to this. His characteristically fine review is here. I also found online this rather good review from Culturally Disorientated, a blog previously unknown to me, here.

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Filed under Fantasy Fiction, Lord, Karen, Science Fiction

Life was not an art-form, or rather, it was an extremely mixed genre.

Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

Some books are too subtle to be easily reviewed. You lose them as you try to describe them. They slip away, leaving just a vague sense that you haven’t done them justice.

Antal Szerb is one of the 20th Century’s great writers. His The Pendragon Legend is one of the funniest shaggy dog tales ever committed to print and his Oliver VII is easily one of my favourite novels, featuring as its main character a king who ends up as incognito head of the resistance to his own reign. Szerb writes with intelligence, empathy, a gentle but very funny wit and an acute sense of the absurd.

JourneyJourney2 journey-by-moonlight-antal-szerb

The blue cover is the one I have on Kindle. The creamy-brown cover is an earlier one from Pushkin which I love, and the one with the photo of Venice is again I think very good and is the cover I have on my physical copy.

The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

Mihály is on honeymoon in Venice with his new bride Erzsi. He’s a dreamer whose family are pressing him hard to settle down and to take a responsible role in the family business. He married Erzsi in part as she seemed a solid bourgeois who would help him adapt to what’s expected of him. It didn’t occur to him that she might have married him for what he is, not what his family want him to be.

She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?

Erzsi is on her second marriage. She’s more experienced than Mihály, more worldly. When he wanders off one evening into the back-streets of Venice, not returning until the next day, she gets her first hint that there may be serious issues in store for them and that their mutual fiction might not be a lasting one. Things get worse when they run into Janos – a roguishly attractive childhood friend of Mihaly’s who stirs up old memories of adolescence.

Mihály tries to explain his past to Erzsi, but the more he does so the clearer it becomes that it still has a hold over his life that he barely understands and doesn’t particularly want to escape. When the time comes for the newlyweds to travel on Mihály gets briefly off their train to buy some supplies. He then “involuntarily, but not unintentionally” gets back on the wrong train. Now Erzsi’s en route to Paris on her own while Mihály bumbles across Italy in a meandering quest for he’s not quite sure what.

You start off as Mr X, who happens to be an engineer, and sooner or later you’re just an engineer who happens to be called Mr X.

At first it seemed to me there was a danger that Szerb would fall into that old trap of portraying a thoughtful and artistically sensitive man held back by a sensible yet dull wife. What follows though is vastly more interesting and intricate than that.

Before his departure Mihály told Erzsi of how his adolescent circle revolved around morbidly erotic role-plays led by the Ulpius siblings Eva and Tamas. The boys were all sexually obsessed with Eva and their little group broke up on the eventual suicide of Tamas. It’s clear to Erzsi that Mihály’s still fixated both on Eva and on the mystery of Tamas’ suicide. The result is that when he wanders off she’s not losing him to Italy – she’s losing him to nostalgia.

Mihály meanwhile comes to discover that as the old joke goes the past isn’t what it used to be. While he’s not a first person narrator he does still manage to be terribly unreliable, comically so. It’s perhaps natural given his insular nature that he doesn’t understand other people very well and mistakes much of what’s going on around him, but it’s more surprising to discover that he doesn’t understand himself terribly well either.

“I know what’s wrong with me,” he told the doctor. “Acute nostalgia. I want to be young again. Is there a cure for that?”

Mihály’s quest takes him across Italy to an encounter with one of his old friends who’s since become a particularly holy monk; to a series of missed and partial encounters with Eva; to further run-ins with Janos; and to an affair with an American tourist named Millicent (“‘Millicent,’ he said. ‘There’s someone in the world actually called Millicent!'”). As his money runs out he comes increasingly to realise that “There’s no cure for nostalgia” and the prospects of him ever returning to Erzsi become ever slighter.

The focus of the novel then shifts to Erzsi’s viewpoint. She too is adrift: nobody expects to be cut loose on their honeymoon. The difference is that while Mihály may be content to drift downwards into a morass of memory, Erzsi is made of firmer stuff.

All her life she had been the model of a good girl, adored by her nannies and fräuleins, her father’s pride and joy, the best pupil in the form, sent abroad to academic competitions. Her whole life had been sheltered and ordered, the good bourgeois life consecrated to a sternly supervised moral order. In due course she married a wealthy man, dressed elegantly, took on a grand house and presided over it as a model housewife. She always wore the identical hat sported by every other woman of the same rank in society. She took her summer holidays where fashion dictated, held the same opinions about theatrical productions, uttered the turns of phrase currently de rigueur. In everything she was a conformist, as Mihály would say. Then she began to get bored.

Erzsi married Mihály so he could save her from the very conventionality he wanted her to lend him. They never understood each other, but she at least is capable of understanding that and she soon realises too that she doesn’t actually need him as she’s perfectly capable of saving herself. Mihály is a weak man. His obsession with his past allows him to evade his present and is part of a wider lack of interest in the outside world. As an adolescent he was never quite as decadent as his friends, and now as an adult he yearns after something he thinks he lost but that was never really his.

Journey then is a novel of reversals. Nobody here is quite as we first expect them, something that’s true not only of Mihály and Erzsi but of many of the supporting characters too. Mihály can be irritatingly wet at times, but he’s not a villain. He is, literally, lost and if he’s perhaps less than he seems then Erzsi in turn is more. It’s the reader as much as anyone else who journeys by moonlight, and what seems one thing when seen through shadows from a distance can reveal itself to be something quite different close up.

Journey is a slower starter than either Pendragon or Oliver. Mihály isn’t always the most engaging protagonist and Szerb is right to ensure that he’s not therefore the only viewpoint character. Adolescent games however sophisticated are still fundamentally immature, and Mihály’s quest is deeply self-indulgent and ultimately rather selfish.

Despite those initial concerns, as it develops Journey shows such sympathy for its characters and by extension for all of us that it’s a hard novel not to love. Mihály and Erzsi are flawed and so are we. Their troubles and adventures are absurd and so are ours. Szerb was a kind man. He wrote a kind book.

“In London November isn’t a month,” he said, “it’s a state of mind.”

Journey has been widely reviewed. I’d draw your attention to Tom’s review at A Common Reader, here; Guy’s review at His Futile Preoccupations here; and Kaggsy’s review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here. Nick Lezard’s review at the Guardian is also worth reading and can be found here.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, Pushkin Press, Rix, Len (translator), Szerb, Antal

Looking back on #TBR20 and forward to #TBR10

Last year I took part in the #TBR20 project, started by Eva Stalker. My post about the concept, my reasons for taking part and the books I chose is here.

I finished my #TBR20 just before Christmas, which given I started it in April should pretty neatly illustrate the key problem I ran into. It was just too much of a commitment. Admittedly I departed from my list to read some books I was sent for review, and two or three times when going on holiday I allowed myself a holiday read that wasn’t on the list, but in the main I stuck to it.

Over the course of 2015 I read around fifty books. Forcing myself to take twenty of them from a single list proved to be too much. For a more prolific reader twenty might be a good number. For a reader like me it’s too constraining.

Some constraint however can be a good thing. I chose many of the books on my #TBR20 list precisely because I wanted to push myself to read them. Often they were books I’d meant to read for years, but kept not quite getting to. The list in that sense worked well.

On the other hand, I found myself taking more review books than usual (I suspect to give myself a break from the list) and around book 18 I simply broke and bought some new titles. I didn’t binge as much as many have, but I do think there’s an issue where holding off buying for an artificially extended period may cause one to simply bulk-buy at the end.

For me then #TBR20 was a mixed experience. I’m delighted that I finally made time for Lispector, Pym, Cole, Johnson, Levy, Adler, Wood and others. I’m less delighted that so much of my year was dominated by a single project.

#TBR10

The basic concept of #TBR20 is a good one, even if the length of commitment is too great for me. Going forward therefore I’m going to try a variant, which I’m imaginatively calling #TBR10. The rules of #TBR10 are as follows:

  • choose ten books I already own from my TBR pile;
  • make sure that every other book I read is from that list of ten.

And that’s pretty much it. Exceptions are allowed for review copies and poetry, but otherwise it’s that simple. There’s no ban on buying, but there’s no point in buying loads if half of the next twenty books I read have to come from the #TBR10 list. It’s much more manageable, and allowing myself ten books that aren’t on the list makes it much more flexible (and those ten could also be from my TBR pile, or could be new purchases, or whatever).

My hope is that this will still help me cut into my TBR backlog without ending up frustrating me as #TBR20 did. I’ll let you all know how it goes.

The list

Finally, here’s my #TBR10 list. in no particular order:

HeartofDarkness KingofaRainy Never Mind Nightwood Palfrey  Signs Vinge VoyageToTheLighthouseThe Palm-Wine Drinkard

The Proust slightly concerns me as I’m not sure it’s sensible to have a novel over 800 pages long lined up for the next two or three months, I simply may not have time to read it during that period. It’s therefore open to a substitution. A Fire Upon the Deep for the curious is one of the more highly regarded science fiction novels out there, but it’s very much hardcore SF and not at all a crossover book to an audience more used to pure literary fiction.

My only other concern is that it’s not the most diverse list ever. It would be good perhaps to add in something that’s not middle class European (which admittedly the Herrera and Vinge aren’t, but the rest pretty much are). Any suggestions welcome, though preferably nothing so fat that it’ll take months to read…

Edit: On reflection, the Proust is a definite goal for this year but will work better after the period this will relate to, as I won’t get a solid reading block of the sort I’ll need for a little while. If I do I can always add it back in as one of my non-list choices. Instead therefore I’ve added in Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard which should make for a nice change of pace.

 

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One doesn’t step into anyone’s life, not even a dead man’s, without having to live it to the end.

I Was Jack Mortimer, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia and translated by Ignat Avsey

As a kid I used to love the British TV show The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. For those who haven’t seen it Perrin is a moderately senior businessman loved by his family and respected by his colleagues who decides he just can’t face his own life any more. There’s no crisis as such, no determining event, it just gets to the point where he can’t live with the tedium of the everyday.

Perrin fakes his own suicide, but discovers that escaping yourself isn’t as easy as it looks. Ferdinand Sponer would sympathise.

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Sponer is a taxi-driver in 1930s Vienna. He has a steady girlfriend and there’s an expectation they’ll marry, but there’s no urgency to it so as yet they haven’t. He finds himself attracted to a young aristocratic woman he picks up as a fare, Marisabelle von Raschitz. She’s beautiful and aloof and doesn’t notice him at all. He tracks her down hoping to make a connection and strikes up a conversation with her. He’s good-looking but he’s not remotely part of her world and while he manages to briefly impinge on her awareness she walks on dismissing him from her life as she might a cat she’d stopped to stroke in the street.

Soon Sponer has picked up another fare. This time it’s an expensively dressed young man of similar age to Sponer himself. To Sponer’s horror when he turns round to ask his fare a question the man’s dead, shot twice. Sponer realised that someone must have leaped on the running board while they were in traffic and that the noise of passing trucks must have masked the sounds of the shooting.

Sponer panics. He fears the police will blame him and so decides to dump the body, but then he realises that once the body is found it won’t take long to discover that the dead man was last seen taking a taxi, and the other drivers will describe Sponer and the police will want to know why he dumped the body. The only answer is to make sure the dead man is seen alive at his destination. Sponer has to become the dead man, check into his hotel and create a visual trail so the police won’t trace the body back to him.

Ok, that makes no sense at all, but it’s the premise of the book. The dead man is Jack Mortimer and Sponer has to assume his identity to cover up his own inadvertent part in Mortimer’s murder. If Sponer were thinking more clearly he’d have realised that people might come to the hotel looking for Mortimer and that impersonating an American tourist isn’t your best idea when you don’t actually speak much English, but if Sponer were thinking more clearly he’d have called the police in the first place and then carried on with his life.

I have a rule for books with unlikely premises – I’ll generally give them one gimme. I think most readers work much the same way. There’s no point reading a book about vampires and getting hung up on the fact there’s no such thing. You have to accept vampires or there’s no book.

Here the gimme is that Sponer decides his best bet is to become Mortimer. You just have to accept that or there’s no book. The trouble is, Lernet-Holenia spends a fair amount of time setting out Sponer’s chain of reasoning and the circumstances that push him in that direction. That makes for a slightly slow start as frankly however much justification is established it still never makes much sense, and the reality is if I weren’t already prepared to accept that outcome I wouldn’t have picked this up. Lernet-Holenia could learn here from Edgar Rice Burroughs. If your book is about the centre of the Earth, there’s really no need to waste too much time describing how everyone gets there.

Once Sponer is Mortimer the book finally kicks into gear. Sponer receives a phone call in his room from a clearly distraught woman, but she calls in English and he can’t understand her. Soon she’s in the lobby and he’s wondering quite what he’s got himself into. To make things worse he’s not considered the point that somebody wanted Mortimer dead and that when they hear Mortimer somehow made it to his hotel after all they might come back to finish the job.

The meat here isn’t whodunnit, but whoisit? As himself Sponer was a nobody, a working class joe making enough to get by but never enough for any more than that. Now he’s staying at a high-end hotel with money in his pocket, and while things start going downhill very fast he’s not just some guy anymore. Ironically, it’s by losing his own identity that he’s finally become somebody.

I Was Jack Mortimer works reasonably well as a thriller, but like a lot of crime fiction the murder and its consequences are just means to an end. Here that’s the exploration of issues of wealth, class and identity. Sponer’s journey through the Vienna night takes him from cheap late-night bars back to Marisabelle von Raschitz’ apartment and much in between and the book is at its best when conjuring up this now vanished Vienna.

Right there on the left was a slot-machine bar. He went in. It was a large, circular, dome-shaped room with slot machines around the perimeter and tables in the middle at which people were eating and drinking. A radio was blaring. He walked past the machines and studied the labels. Over one of the taps was the inscription “Sherry”. He picked up a glass, held it under the tap, and inserted a coin in the slot. The interior emitted a hollow gurgling and spluttering sound, and sherry—somewhat unappetisingly, he thought—gushed from the metal tap into the glass. There are many people who don’t enjoy the luxury of having desert wines served up elegantly. Slot-machine bars are meant for the likes of them.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is that Lernet-Holenia describes every street Sponer drives down and every location he goes into, so that my distinct impression was that if you wished you could walk around Vienna holding a copy of the book and following Sponer’s trail. It’s a classic example of a novel where the city is just as much a character as any of the people.

Where the book works less well is pacing. After that slow start I mentioned the book picks up and becomes a lot more fun, but then at around the half-way mark switches continent and characters so as to explore the background to Mortimer’s killing. Conan Doyle does something similar in A Study in Scarlet where early on the focus moves to Mormon Utah and for a large chunk of the book Holmes and Watson are accordingly nowhere to be seen, with the story returning to them only after it’s fully explored the American backstory to the London crime.

Here Lernet-Holenia does something similar, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as it did for Conan Doyle. Just as I’d really bought in to Sponer and his situation I found myself following a bunch of new characters I didn’t really care about in a setting much less interesting than 1930s Vienna. Fortunately we return to Sponer reasonably quickly and from there the book gets its momentum back, but it’s a distracting midpoint wobble.

I’m at risk by now of making it sound like this isn’t a good book, which would be unfair. It’s not a great book and it has some definite structural issues, but it’s short enough that the digressions never take too long and overall it’s a light and fun read. Sponer’s girlfriend gets involved and helpfully is both more interesting and more sympathetic than Sponer himself, and there’s genuine interest in Sponer’s transformation in the eyes of Marisabelle von Raschitz as his identities ebb and flow.

I’ll end with a final quote. Sponer is attracted to Marisabelle von Raschitz as much for what she represents as what she is. Sponer’s father was an infantry officer but died when Sponer was young, leaving his family to slide into poverty. Marisabelle is part of the world he could have had. Here he visit’s his girlfriend’s family, who live in the world he got instead:

The air in the room was stuffy and it smelt of food. On the stairs it had smelt the same, just as in the flat he rented from the Oxenbauers, and in the flats and on the stairs of the friends he had, and the acquaintances he sometimes visited. The air was stuffy and it smelt of food. Here people lived and then married, and their children in turn were brought up in flats where the air was stuffy and it smelt of food and a few other indefinable substances. Such was their life.

Faced with that, who wouldn’t be tempted to put on a dead man’s clothes?

Other reviews

I Was Jack Mortimer has been widely and well reviewed. Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed it here, Guy of His Futile Preoccupations here, Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader’s here and Stu of Winston’sDad’sblog here. I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, and if anyone reading this has also reviewed it please feel free to include a link in the comments.

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Filed under Lernet-Holenia, Alexander, Pushkin Vertigo

Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man

Late Fame, by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt

I am, it’s fair to say, something of an Arthur Schnitzler fan. I’ve previously reviewed his Fraülein Else and his Dying, and loved both. When I heard that Pushkin Press were releasing a previously unpublished Schnitzler novella I lost no time asking for a review copy.

As a rule, I’m fairly suspicious of posthumous releases of unpublished work. All too often the result is some half-finished manuscript which the author discarded as not up to scratch but which was then slapped together after their death even though it’s perfectly evident it wouldn’t ever have been released in their life.

In this case, that suspicion would be totally unwarranted. Late Fame is quality Schnitzler, and as the excellent afterword makes plain was in fact very likely intended for publication in pretty much its current form. Pushkin Press have done both Schnitzler’s memory and his fans proud.

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Edward Saxberger is an elderly civil servant, not yet retired but comfortably settled in his department and his quietly ordered life. Years ago, in his youth, he wrote and published a small poetry collection titled Wanderings. It didn’t make much of a stir and after a little while he gave up his literary career and became the stolid and reliable civil servant that he is today.

Now (the book was written in the 1930s) a young man named Wolfgang Meier comes to Saxberger’s rooms seeking him out as the long-lost author of Wanderings. To Saxberger’s amazement Meier talks of how his artistic circle have discovered Saxberger’s work and been inspired by it; how they were delighted to learn he still lived; and that they believe the time has come for Wanderings to gain the recognition so long denied it.

Before long Saxberger is part of Meier’s set – a group of young writers and intellectuals based loosely on Schnitzler’s own similar early circle. Meier is himself a poet, but they also have a critic, a playwright, an actress and more. They all hail Saxberger as a giant come to walk among them and even more they claim him as a spiritual companion and inspiration. Saxberger finds himself replacing dinners with his long-standing friends and peers and their talk of business and politics with dazzling late night discussions of art and ambition.

Saxberger’s a sober man and his literary aspirations were long ago put to bed, and yet it wouldn’t be human not to be excited by this new attention. He’s cautious naturally, but what if he was overlooked? What if they’re right and now, after all these years, he’s finally being recognised? Who wouldn’t be tempted by such an extraordinary second chance, so unlooked for and so unexpected?

Meier and his group are organising a recital evening at which they will present various works from their movement and they want Saxberger to write new poetry for the occasion and to showcase it with them. It’s a dizzying prospect, but Saxberger finds that it’s harder than he thought to pick up his pen again, and he’s not entirely sure he understands the work his young compatriots are producing. Does he still have talent, if he ever did? Do they? Could he still be relevant? Will the audience proclaim him a lost master or will they laugh?

With his artistic dreams rewoken Saxberger finds himself caught between identities: the staid but comfortable complacency of his place among his aged peers with their careers in government or industry; the thrilling but perhaps fleeting recognition of him as an artist but only among people more than thirty years his junior. Saxberger no longer feels he fits in the world he’s come to inhabit, but he’s not a twenty-something just setting out either.

In lesser hands Late Fame could easily be a cruel novel. Schnitzler, however, walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Saxberger is a likable protagonist and his pleasure at being (re)discovered is palpable, as are the practical difficulties of his position. The young artists are passionate, deadly serious and full of their own importance as of course they would be.

They assuredly had a great deal of talent between them; work, however, was something they actually did very little of.

Here, Saxberger is in a café with them and notices them exchanging sharp glances at another very similar looking group.

“Who are those people?” asked Saxberger of Meier.

Christian, the tragedian, answered for him. “Those are the talentless ones.”

“Is that known for a fact,” Saxberger asked earnestly, “or do they call themselves that?”

“We call them that,” mocked Friedinger. “And that one there” – he gestured at one of those sitting at the other table – “is about to have a play put on.”

“Why do you call them talentless?” asked Saxberger, persevering.

“Talentless,” interjected Meier in his calm way, “is what we generally call those who sit at a different table from us.”

“Nonsense,” shrieked Stauffer, “they really are useless. Someone has to put them in their place.”

“I’m writing an article about it,” said Blink, his demeanour suggesting that this would dismiss them once and for all.

Note that in the above quote there’s a said, but before that some askeds, a mocked, an interjected and a shrieked. There’s an often quoted writing rule that you should only ever use said, not exclaimed or proclaimed or asseverated or whatever. It’s like most literary rules, fine for some kinds of writing, but far from a requirement for all as I think Schnitzler demonstrates.

Schnitzler succeeded in making me care for Saxberger, even sympathising with his growing but easily understood vanity. That empathy made this at times an oddly tense novel, since I found it difficult to imagine Saxberger suddenly being hailed as a major new discovery by anyone beyond his new circle. They title their evening Enthusiasm, and it’s easy to see him as just another enthusiasm they’ve briefly picked up and might just as lightly put down again not considering the damage they could do.

Late Fame doesn’t have the technical daring of Fraülein Else or the implacable awfulness of the situation in Dying, which I suppose could arguably make it a lesser work. Better though perhaps to see it as a gentler novel than either of those; a Sunday afternoon book to be read with a coffee and slice of strudel but still shining with Schnitzler’s characteristic psychological acuity.

Late Fame comes in a physically gorgeous hardback edition which fits neatly in hand or pocket and is just tremendously well put together. The translation is fluid and readable (though since I know no German I can’t speak to its accuracy), and the afterword is both fascinating in its description of how this manuscript was so nearly lost and yet finally came down the years to us and insightful (particularly in picking up subtle psychological elements that would I suspect be more obvious to a contemporary reader familiar with Freudian theory than a modern one for whom that’s largely historic). The whole package is a delight.

Other reviews

I’m sure I’m missing several, but the ones I have noted are from Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here and from Lizzy Siddal at Lizzy’s Literary Life here. As ever, if you know of others please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Central European Literature, German Literature, Pushkin Press, Schnitzler, Arthur

Who was it who invented coffee? He must be a cousin of the genius who invented the bed. Nobel Prizes for both of them. For them, and for the person who invented Nutella.

Game for Five, by Marco Malvaldi and translated by Howard Curtis

Game for Five was the last book I read in 2015. I read it in the run up to New Year while feeling slightly under the weather from a cold and from the usual Christmas excess. I wanted to lie quietly in a room digesting and recovering, and knew I wasn’t up to anything too serious or dark.

One of the advantages of following book blogs is that you’re never short of recommendations for any kind of book you might wish (it’s also one of the disadvantages). Need a book for a post-Christmas slump? Not a problem.

GameforFive

The classic Italian neighbourhood bar isn’t somewhere you go just to get drunk. Instead it’s a mix of social hub and of breathing space between work and home. A good Italian bar is civilisation with an espresso machine.

Massimo is the owner and barman of Bar Lume, a neighbourhood bar in a seaside town near Pisa. His regulars include a group of four old men, one of them his grandfather Ampelio, who like to while away their day sitting outside chatting and playing cards. When he’s quiet he joins them and if he’s called away they cover for him. The Italian for to chat by the way is chiacchierare, isn’t that great? So onomatopoeic.

The tourist trade keeps the bar busy, but mostly at predictable times of day leaving Massimo with a lot of free time and an easy life. That all changes when a late night drunk stumbles across the corpse of a murdered girl, and the first place he goes to for help is Massimo’s bar. Massimo ends up second on the scene and first to call the police, and to his dismay it’s local cop Inspector Fusco who heads up the investigation.

Fusco isn’t exactly Inspector Morse, and he quickly latches on a local boy who hasn’t got an alibi but who hasn’t much to link him with the crime either. Reluctantly Massimo realises that if the truth’s to come out he has to lend a hand and do a little digging of his own. Massimo doesn’t have the limited resources of the town police department, but he does have something much better – he has his elderly regulars and through them the entire town’s rumour mill:

How the hell is it that people always know what’s going on? Massimo thought. What do they have in their homes, satellite receivers? “Listen, we’ll tell you what O.K. told us . . . ” “That seems only fair, and I’ll tell you what Fusco told me.” Four timeworn necks craned towards the counter. “I don’t believe it!” Ampelio said. “Has he found something?” “But keep it to yourselves as long as possible, please.” Believe us, the four faces said, while Massimo’s face made an effort to keep as deadpan as possible. The important thing, when you gossip, is to maintain a formal structure. The person spreading the gossip has to demand the maximum secrecy, and the listeners have to grant it. Obviously, they’ll broadcast the news as widely as they can later. It’s just a matter of time. If someone says, “Keep it to yourselves as long as possible,” he doesn’t mean “Tell it to the fewest possible people,” but “Resist for at least a little while before coming out with it, that way it’ll be harder to trace it back to me.”

Massimo’s a genial and basically good-natured sort. People like him and they’re happy to talk to him. Soon even Inspector Fusco realises that Massimo might actually be useful and that there are doors that open easily for a barman that remain firmly closed to the police.

What follows is a fairly classic amateur detective novel. I worked out whodunnit a little bit before the reveal, but it’s not one of those books where the point is to treat it like a crossword puzzle and see if you can beat the mystery. Instead it’s an utterly charming slice of small town Italian life, with a murder thrown in to give everyone something to do.

The real joy here is the interaction between the characters. Massimo’s grandfather, Ampelio, is on a restricted diet due to health issues and so is constantly sneaking in illicit ice-creams and lying about how many he’s already had. In between, he manages to give Massimo an affectionate hard time:

“Nice to see you, son,” Ampelio greeted him. “We’ve been waiting for you for two hours. I guess you were scared they’d take away your pillow and you were hugging it for safekeeping.”

Massimo and his regulars are all hugely entertaining to spend time with. The rest of the cast are generally fun and well (if lightly) drawn, and even the omniscient narratorial voice gets in a fair few knowing asides:

“The man’s a lecher. They say he once got a sixteen-year-old girl pregnant and made her have an abortion. I was told that by Zaira, whose grandson works at the Imperiale.” (Another basic rule, when sticking your nose into the business of people you’ve never seen or known, is to back up your statements with specific references to people or, better still, the relatives of people whose knowledge of the subject is guaranteed by some connection or other with the person in question. This makes even the most utter bullshit sound reassuringly logical.)

There’s also a wonderful running gag where Massimo refuses to serve drinks he doesn’t approve of. Massimo has strong views on what drinks are appropriate to any given time of day or temperature; asking for a cappuccino after breakfast is more likely to result in a lecture than a coffee.

It’s fair to say that Malvaldi is stronger on his male characters than his female. Massimo is slightly old school, having chosen his barmaid as much for her breasts as her brain (though she is pretty competent). I got the sense that perhaps Malvaldi himself wasn’t greatly different, since the narrator at one point comments on women who look gorgeous but ruin everything when they open their mouths to reveal crass local accents (“Don’t speak, girls, just let yourselves be looked at.”) At the same time, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know what he meant, so perhaps I’m just being a little Guardian-readery there.

Otherwise, this is a warm and likable novel. It’s a book to sink into after a crappy day with a generous glass of wine close to hand. It was perfect for what I wanted when I turned to it, and that’s no small thing.

As the cover suggests, this is the first of a series. The real test for me always when someone reviews a series’ novel is whether they plan to read another. Well, these aren’t all translated yet, but I absolutely intend to pick up the sequel, and I look forward to meeting Massimo and his regulars again. Mine’s a Negroni.

Other reviews

I heard about this from JacquiWine Journal’s review, here. Jacqui did her characteristically great job of describing the book. In fact, on this occasion I made the mistake of rereading her review before starting mine and found myself without actually that much to say since she rather seemed to have covered it all.

Postscript

Some readers may notice that this wasn’t actually my next scheduled review. Basically I’ve just got too much of a review backlog currently and I’m reading books faster than I’m writing about them. Later in the year there should be slower periods while I’m reading big books like the next Proust, so my plan is to skip a couple of reviews now and hopefully come back to them later.

The books I’m skipping for the moment are Hawthorn and Child, which is excellent, and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing which is fascinating though I’m slightly less enamoured of it than many others are. Both absolutely merit a review, but both are already very widely reviewed so it’s not like people are struggling to get views on them.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Italian Literature, Malvaldi, Marco

Reflections on a reading year

My 2015 end of year write-up is divided into two parts. The first is some reflections on my reading habits and how they’re affected by time pressures, which you can skip if you just want to get to the list itself.

I don’t have an apposite image for this post as it’s not a review of a single book. I thought therefore I’d include the poster for what was probably my favourite film of those I saw in 2015:

GreatBeauty

Reading reflections

When I wrote up my 2014 end of year review I found myself complaining once again of having read fewer books than I’d hoped. It struck me afterwards that while it had seemed to me 2014 had been particularly bad, in fact dissatisfaction with how much I’d managed to read was an annual refrain. A key goal for me in 2015 was fixing that.

One of the advantages of having a blog is it gives you moderately hard numbers on what you’ve read during its life. Only moderately, as while I blog pretty much every novel I read I only tend to write-up shorter works if I think there’s something interesting to say about them (I just don’t have time to write-up every short story I read much as I might like to). In addition, there’s been a couple of times I’ve had too big a review backlog and have had to skip a couple of reviews (though I keep note of them in case I get a chance at a later date). Still, overall, counting my posts gives me a pretty good sense of how much I’m reading.

Back in 2009 I read around 56 books. Skip forward to 2012 and I’ve slipped down to somewhere between 30 and 40 books. By 2013 I’ve only read 32 books and in 2014 again it’s 32 books. Admittedly some of them were chunksters, but even so that’s not great.

I carried out that analysis around the beginning of 2015, and it shook me up a little. I’m busy, but not more so than in 2009. The issue isn’t free time. The issue is prioritisation. What changed between 2009 and 2014 wasn’t how much time I had to read, but how much time I used on other stuff.

The decline in my reading dates roughly to when I got an iPad and started watching tv shows on my commute home. It aligns too with my getting into the habit, when tired of an evening, to watch an episode of a show I’m following rather than to read a little. Basically, it ties to my taking time away from reading and putting it instead towards tv. It’s pretty much that simple.

There’s nothing wrong with tv. It’s a valid artistic medium, and if (as I do) you actively choose what you watch then I don’t see it as necessarily more passive than any other art form one might enjoy. Still, since I found myself each year disgruntled at not having read more that did raise questions about whether I was using my time well.

The result was that in 2015 I tried to make a more conscious effort to make time for reading. That meant cutting back a bit on other interests, but the truth is if you’ve got a full-time job you just don’t have time for all the things you might enjoy. I don’t play computer games much any more – I didn’t have time for that and films and tv shows and reading and other interests all of which come after family time and have to come after work. Something had to give, and that’s ok.

At the end of 2015 I’d read around 50 books. That number could still be better, but it’s a hell of an improvement over 32. I’d made a choice over the past few years to watch more tv instead of reading without realising what I’d done. Once I noticed, I made a conscious choice to the contrary and the result is I’m a lot happier writing up this year’s list than in the past couple of years writing up the preceding lists.

2015- prize categories and winners

This year the books are in roughly chronological order based on when I read them, save for my favourite book of 2015 which I’ve put right at the end (which I guess tells you that I didn’t read it in December).

Best overlooked impressionistic Modernist classic that hardly anyone seems to actually read: Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf. Arguably Mrs Dalloway is the better novel, but Jacob’s Room was my first Woolf and I loved it. Woolf seems to me a writer more referenced than read, overshadowed by the endless praise for Beckett and Joyce. Her prose though is exquisite, and yet her novels are still effortlessly readable and not precious at all. Woolf is one of my great discoveries of 2015.

Best wryly intelligent hyper-contemporary novel written in the second person: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. Being honest this almost got cut, as with more books read this past year the competition is fiercer. When I looked back at the year though it still stood out as fresh, original and ambitious. Hamid doesn’t get the critical attention I feel he deserves and while I doubt one end of year blog post will do much to change that he still deserves a place on the list.

Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men was also a candidate on the hyper-contemporary front (if not on the second person front, but that’s pretty much Hamid’s thing). It’s a fascinating and enjoyable novel and on another day it could easily have squeezed out the Hamid.

Interestingly, both Hamid and Kunzru seem to me to be writing with an almost SFnal sensibility, which may in part be why both seem so good at capturing that sense of the contemporary that I think most novelists miss (usually in fairness as they’re not aiming for it). Both are fairly close to me in age, Hamid has a background in corporate law and Kunzru like me is a Londoner born and bred so perhaps it’s not surprising I find resonances in both their work. They’re both writing about worlds I recognise.

Best 500+ page novel structured around a train journey: Zone, by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell). This was a candidate for my best novel of the year, but ultimately only came third in that category. It stands out however for its depth, its structural cleverness (without being off-putting), its rhythm and momentum and for its sheer bloody size. I’m looking forward to my next Enard, and I’m looking forward to it being shorter too.

Best absolutely delicious sun-washed novel somewhat reminiscent of a nouvelle vague movie: Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan (translated by Irene Ash, though apparently the Heather Lloyd translation is better). I just loved this. The image of Cécile eating an orange while drinking a scaldingly hot cup of coffee remains with me. A gorgeous novel.

Best Californian first person narrative: Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker. Dorothy Baker takes that old standby, the well-off family in crisis, and manages to do something interesting with it. There’s a lovely use of twins and parallels; subtle structural complexities that don’t need to be noticed to be effective; and a narrative drive which made me at least want to know how it would all turn out (impressive given the novel hasn’t much of a plot).

Best novel restoring my faith in ProustSodom and Gomorrah, by Marcel Proust (Kilmartin and Moncrieff translation). I struggled a bit with The Guermantes Way, so it was an utter relief to find Sodom and Gomorrah such a wonderful read. It’s funny, yet as perceptive as ever. Only Proust can cover grief, sexual obsession, forbidden desire and garden party comedy all in the same book (though it helps he has so many pages in which to cover it all of course …) Looking back on my year, this was literally the only book I read in April 2015. It took me over a month to finish, but it was more than worth it.

Best short story collection featuring Cornish folkloreDiving Belles, by Lucy Wood. This is just a marvellously inventive short story collection, rooted in place and yet unconstrained by the puritan realism of so much literary fiction. It was one of the first books to come to mind when I started thinking what would be on this list, and while it wasn’t in the top three for the year it is so refreshing and so enjoyable that I couldn’t ignore it. Look for Karen Lord to occupy this spot next year, save that her book’s not a short story collection and isn’t set in Cornwall.

Best novel in which basically nothing happens and where everyone is really rather nice: A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym. Nice is such a damning word. When I was a teenager and later when dating the worst word you could ever hear applied to you from a woman was nice. Nobody wanted to be nice. Nice means safe, unexceptionable, unexciting. Nice is your ticket to indifference at worst, tepid friendship at best.

Blessings though is a nice novel, and it’s a nice novel filled with largely nice people. The challenges its characters face aren’t terribly serious and nothing too bad is likely to happen to any of them. Despite that it’s a wonderful read and a comic delight (it’s the kind of novel that asks for phrases like comic delight, I’m not sure why, tradition I guess). It’s charming, and charm isn’t something there’s so much of that it should be lightly disregarded.

Best reinvention of narrative: Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector (translated by Ben Moser). This did make it into my top three for the year, edging out Zone to take the number two spot. No small achievement given it’s literally less than a fifth the length of Zone. For all that size disparity Hour is ingenious, challenging, masterful in its command of language and generally is just exceptional. A truly amazing novel.

Best novel set in early 20th Century ViennaMaster of the Day of Judgment, Leo Perutz. Oddly enough, if I ran this category exactly as worded over the whole history of this blog it would probably be one of the most contested. An incredible place and time for quality literature. I found this wonderfully clever and even audacious. For much of it I wasn’t even quite sure what genre I was in: crime or horror (or both?) Pushkin have turned me into a Perutz fan, and I’m seriously looking forward to their next by him.

Best novel about being a woman in 1920s Paris with your looks fading and no certain incomeAfter Leaving Mr Mackenzie, by Jean Rhys. Rhys pretty much always wins this category to be fair. There’s a cold clarity to Rhys’ prose and an honesty to her gaze which makes Rhys just a marvel: you feel the impact but it’s hard to say quite how she achieves it. She’s easily one of my favourite authors.

And finally, drumroll please.

Best novel of 2015The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. This was actually the first novel I read in 2015, and here after the year’s ended it remains the best. It’s just extraordinary. A densely murky yet brilliantly written unreliable narrative where everything is “all a darkness”. This is a novel which not only could bear rereading, but which demands it (not that I have yet). Superb.

What else? I’ve not included Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon as it was a reread, but it was a bloody good reread. Otherwise, I’ve cheated a bit above by including links to the Kunzru but I was struggling between that and the Hamid. Even with that little bit of fudging I’ve omitted books which could easily in another year have made the list (Open City leaps to mind, which is genuinely excellent and might well have appeared above if I’d written this on a different day; similarly William Golding’s The Inheritors with its dazzling evocation of the internal experience of Neanderthal man).

In all truth Open City and The Inheritors probably have better cause to be on the list above than say the Hamid or the Wood. Both the Cole and the Golding are superbly well written: the Cole daringly undermines itself and risks entirely losing the reader’s sympathy; the Golding takes huge risks in terms of language and subject. In the end, however, it’s my list and an emotional response is as valid as any other. Perhaps it’s the best response.

Right, now that this is written I’m finally free to see what others put in their end of year lists. Hopefully at least a few books I overlooked, some of which will may end up on my 2016 list as I catch up. Thanks as ever to everyone who bothers to read the blog, and thanks too to all those who maintain their own blogs and keep my to be read pile ever longer than my managed to read pile.

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The lights of the cafés were hard and cold, like ice.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys is one of the great writers of the 20th Century. She wrote four novels which are in some senses the same novel, but she’s hardly the only author to keep returning to the same territory. Like Patrick Hamilton she doesn’t flinch from the indifferent cruelty of the comfortable to the marginal.

After

That’s a pretty much perfect cover image for this book. Here’s the opening two paragraphs to give a sense of the sharpness of her style:

After she had parted from Mr Mackenzie, Julia Martin went to live in a cheap hotel on the Quai des Grands Augustins. It looked a lowdown sort of place and the staircase smelt of the landlady’s cats, but the rooms were cleaner than you would have expected. There were three cats – white Angoras – and they seemed usually to be sleeping in the hotel bureau.

The landlady was a thin, fair woman with red eyelids. She had a low, whispering voice and a hesitating manner, so that you thought: ‘She can’t possibly be a French-woman.’ Not that you lost yourself in conjectures as to what she was because you didn’t care a damn anyway.

Julia Martin is a 30-something woman living in late 1920s Paris. She’s survived on her looks and her lovers, but as the first fades the second are harder to come by. She has neither job nor savings and no cushion of family money to fall back on. She’s barely holding on, coming home each night with a bottle of wine for company and waking up to reflect that striped wallpapers “made her head ache worse when she awoke after she had been drinking.”

Julia was recently dumped by Mr Mackenzie of the title (she didn’t leave him, the title is ironic). Since then she’s been living off a weekly stipend he’s sent her both to assuage his guilt and in return for her not bothering him further. Now he feels he’s paid enough, so he’s stopping the cheques. For him it’s tidying his affairs; for her it’s a desolation.

At least for now Julia’s still an attractive woman, though she’s worried about her weight and signs of fatigue are showing. Charm is a dwindling currency as she well knows. Every day, desperate as things are, she still does her make up.She fears not doing so would be the first step to becoming the woman who lives on the floor above; a feared future:

The woman had a humble, cringing manner.Of course, she had discovered that, having neither money nor virtue, she had better be humble if she knew what was good for her. But her eyes were malevolent – the horribly malevolent eyes of an old, forsaken woman. She was a shadow, kept alive by a flame of hatred for somebody who had long ago forgotten all about her.

With Paris too full of memories and too short on prospects, Julia is forced to return home to London to stay with her sister. Julia’s family are “members of the vast crowd that bears on its back the label, ‘No money’ from the cradle to the grave”. They’re respectable people. They don’t understand Julia’s need to escape a life they’ve all accepted, and they don’t sympathise now she’s forced to return.

Rhys excels at capturing small humiliations and the fantasies that sustain us. Julia approaches an old lover for money, consoling herself that he’s rich and that their affair though it ended years ago ended well and surely he’ll remember her kindly. To him she’s a curio from the past, like someone you lost touch with years before who pops up on Facebook asking to be friends even though you long since stopped having anything in common.

For most of the novel Rhys focuses on Julia’s thoughts and feelings, but in her encounters with others the viewpoint slips across so that we see their perspective.  It’s impossible not to sympathise with Julia, but equally what does she expect? She’s moody and volatile, far from easy to live with; for the men she’s a passing affair that nobody, including her, ever expected to last.

Rhys doesn’t look away from the uncomfortable. It would be easy to make Julia a nicer person and the men heartless, but it’s not that simple. Julia rebelled against her class and expectations. She fled to men and Paris and a life her family would never approve of. Rebellion however is expensive, and this is a world and a time without a safety net. Julia’s problem isn’t her age or her weight or the very real constraints of her gender. Julia’s problem is money. If she had money the rest could be managed. As M. Folantin found in Huysmans’ With the Flow, when you’re broke your wallet determines your options.

The great sin here is hypocrisy. Julia is condemned even by those who once slept with her, yet who doesn’t want to find a little life before they die? Her real crimes are to lack the advantages of her lovers – their gender and their money – and to lack the acceptance of her family that all you’ll ever have is what the status quo allows you. Her men and her family both judge her, but like all hypocrites they don’t weigh themselves in the same balance.

The contents page tells you she returns to Paris but even if it hadn’t no reader would be surprised when she does. Julia left London for good reasons and she can’t fit back in to the world she quite purposefully left behind. Paris of course was a failure too, though of a different sort, and part of Rhys’ talent is to sail a fine course between hope and despair. Julia is demoralised, rejected and pushed aside but she never quite gives up.

She knew herself ready to struggle and twist and turn, to be unscrupulous and cunning as are all weak creatures fighting for their lives against the strong.

The specifics of Julia Martin’s world are gone. Women today have more options and more opportunities to realise themselves other than through men allowing them to. Even so, the book still rings true. A spot of prolonged unemployment; a divorce after years raising children; a bout of depression; many of us are only a stroke of bad luck away from everything falling apart. If you’re young you can probably bounce back. Even 85 years after this was published though if you’re older you’d still best have money or the world can be a very cold place indeed.

Other reviews

I’ve reviewed Rhys’ Quartet here, a Penguin Modern Classics pocket edition of four of her short stories here, and probably her best novel Good Morning, Midnight here. Otherwise, Dovegreyreader reviewed this one here, and there’s an excellent piece in the Guardian about it here (which lays out pretty much the whole plot, but honestly knowing it doesn’t make much difference).

Edit: Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal also wrote a particularly good review, here.

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Filed under Modernist Fiction, Paris, Rhys, Jean

I decided, as so often before, never to visit a place of this sort again.

Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood

Back towards the end of 2013 I read Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, a book Isherwood himself later harshly criticised but which I loved. It almost made my 2013 end of year list, just squeezed out by Berlin Alexanderplatz in the surprisingly hotly contested Best Novel Set in Berlin category.

Goodbye to Berlin is the second in Isherwood’s loosely linked Berlin stories collection. It was published in 1939, four years after Norris and with Germany on the brink of war. It’s a portrait of a city in violent decline; of an increasingly intolerant culture that has neither room nor sympathy for marginal people.

Goodbye to Berlin

Here’s the opening two paragraphs:

From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scroll-work and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle-class.

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

Goodbye to Berlin conjures the disappearing city back to life in all its squalor and glory. Berlin is one of the great cinematic cities, and Isherwood’s camera captures it well. A city though is nothing without its people, and Isherwood shines there too with a cast of sharply distinguished characters drawn from life. Most famous of all of these of course is the inimitable Sally Bowles:

I noticed that her fingernails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. … Her face was long and thin, powdered dead white. She had very large brown eyes which should have been darker, to match her hair and the pencil she used for her eyebrows.

‘Frau Karpf, Leibling, willst Du sein ein Engel and bring zwei Tassen von Kaffee?’ Sally’s German was not merely incorrect, it was all her own. She pronounced every word in a mincing, specially ‘foreign’ manner. You could tell that she was speaking a foreign language from her expression alone.

Sally Bowles for me, and I imagine for most people, is inseparable from Liza Minelli’s career-defining performance in Cabaret. It’s a film I first saw as a teenager and which I’ve enjoyed several times since, never tiring of it. It’s an absolute classic.

The difficulty with seeing a film before you read the book it’s based on is that the film can define (and thus limit) the book. Instead of a world of imagined possibilities you see Liza Minelli or Sean Connery or whoever played a character in the film. It’s therefore a tribute to Goodbye Berlin that as I read it I saw past the film to Isherwood’s characters.

Here Sally is an English teenager, though no less precocious than in the film. She’s a terrible singer and her cabaret career is short-lived. Like Holly Golightly she makes her money from rats and super-rats (not that she calls them that, but while the labels and countries might differ the men don’t much). Also like Holly she gets by on a combination of charm, self-belief and never looking back.

Sally looms large but is just one of a fascinating cast. Fraulein Schroeder, first met in Norris, reappears here still letting out rooms to eke out her pension; later Isherwood spends a summer with Peter, a gay intellectual, and Otto, Peter’s more sexually fluid working class boyfriend; from there Isherwood comes to share a cramped Berlin apartment for a while with Otto’s family the Nowaks, including Otto’s brother in the Hitler Youth; and finally there’s the rich Landauers, Jewish owners of a rich Berlin apartment store with whom Isherwood becomes friends.

It’s a rich brew. Sally makes her money by sleeping with older men (the only younger one she sleeps with turns out to be making his money by sleeping with older women), but it’s hard to see where she’d fit into the Nazi ideal of Kinder, Küche, Kirche. Peter loves Otto and jealously tries to control him with money, while Otto rebels by staying out late and sleeping with women. They have no future together, but then Peter at least has no future in Germany at all.

The Nowaks and Fraulein Schroeder are ordinary working class people, likable and on a personal level open minded. They don’t hate Jews or gays or even have any particular opinion on them, but the economy is stagnant and there are bills to pay and you have to adapt to the times you live in…

Meanwhile the Landauers are well-off, educated and sophisticated. They’re established, establishment even. It’s hard for them to believe that there’s no longer a place in Germany for them, let alone the places the Nazis have in mind to send them to. Isherwood can see it because he’s already seen what the Nazis do to the powerless, and he can see that the Landauer’s money won’t grant them any immunity.

If there’s a common theme here it’s of people dancing on the brink of an abyss. Rich or poor, gay or straight, middle class or working, each of them slowly adjusts almost without noticing to a world that gets a little uglier every day. What’s happening is there to see all around them, but the facts are too terrible to be acknowledged so mostly they close their eyes or play down its significance.

Some of course do recognise what’s happening, Isherwood among them. He has the luxury of being able to leave. Others who should do the same either can’t, or won’t.

Every evening, I sit in the big half-empty artists’ café by the Memorial Church, where the Jews and left-wing intellectuals bend their heads together over the marble tables, speaking in low, scared voices. Many of them know that they will certainly be arrested – if not today, then tomorrow or next week. So they are polite and mild with each other, and raise their hats and inquire after their colleagues’ families. Notorious literary tiffs of several years’ standing are forgotten.

The book closes in the winter of 1932. Fraulein Schroeder, who once voted Communist, now talks “reverently about ‘Der Fuhrer'”. The Nowaks are likely doing the same. “After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.” Along the way this is a charming and funny novel, filled with quotable scenes and likable characters. That’s what makes it so very sad.

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Filed under Berlin, Isherwood, Christopher