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Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. …
and I’m wondering why?

Not that this is a bad novel, far from it.  But I wouldn’t put it on the same pedestal as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.  What’s the problem?  It is far too long.  OK, at 771 pages, it is 300 pages shorter than that other Pulitzer prize winner, Gone With The Wind but GWTW has no implausible plot-twists and pages and pages of repetitive alcohol and drug binges.

Where was the editor?  AWOL with Theo’s passport, I suspect.  A missed opportunity.  A good novel could have been turned into a great one with a bit more control and a lot less verbiage.

Now that that’s off my chest, let’s focus on the good points.

The first section which sets up the novel is superb.  Thereafter, there’s a gradual downhill gradient with distinct plateaux along the way, which give the feeling of reading for ages and never getting anywhere plot-wise.  That said I read the whole in just over a week, which means it’s very readable.  Nor am I’m employing that word as an insult.

The character portrait of motherless Theo, suffering from survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress syndrome, getting into the wrong company and doing his best to squander the opportunities that are handed him, makes me both anxious and furious. Because for every louse in his life (his father, Boris), there is a benefactor (Mrs Barbour, Hobie).  Unfortunately those mind-altering substances won’t loosen their grip and Theo’s mind is incapable of accepting the good things when they come his way.

His character had been indelibly marked by the tragedy of his mother’s death and Fabritius’s painting of  The Goldfinch which came into his hands at the same time.  Indeed his very identity is bound up with that painting, which, because he effectively stole it from a bombed-out museum, he must keep hidden.

How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and valuable and worthy-of-living person on the basis of my secret uptown? Yet I had.  The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary.  it was support and vindication, it was sustenance and sum.  It was the keystone that held the whole cathedral up.

Suffice to say, when he discovers its loss, he loses the plot and thus begins a downward spiral an adventure that descends into the preposterous.  Tartt has to commit murder to get him out of the fix he lands himself in – in more ways than one.

The point is that Theo believes he is pursued by bad luck and, like the Goldfinch chained to its perch, he cannot fly unfettered.  Ironically it’s not until he resolves the conundrum of returning the painting that his luck changes – massively. fortuitously and far too conveniently for me …

… yet it is hard to see how Theo can reach the point of redemption without that startling denouement.   It’s Dickensian, that’s what.  As indeed are the echoes of Great Expectations and the characters, the good, the bad and the ugly.  Not that they are grotesques  (well, perhaps Lucius Reeve and Boris).  The main characters are finely drawn and nuanced. Indeed this and the strong evocation of place (New York, The Nevada Desert, Amsterdam) are the novel’s stronger points.

And Theo’s not all bad.  He has a generous heart – perhaps he deserves a shot at redemption after all?

3stars.GIF

When I read a homage, I usually have context through prior knowledge of the author to whom homage is being paid.  Apart from one short story by Virginia Woolf, all I know of her is the inevitable: a member of the Bloomsbury set, who drowned herself …

… to be pulled from the depths and reanimated in Maggie’s Gee latest comic novel.  Comedy is not something I associate with Woolf, but Gee, whose Ph. D is Woolfian, assured us at the Edinburgh Book Festival that, when she was well, Woolf had an enormous zest for life. Gee, unhappy with the stereotypical depiction of a depressive Woolf, wanted to rehabilitate her. This is why one of Virginia’s first acts after her – shall we say – resurrection, is to buy herself an enormous hat.

But how does Woolf end up in Manhattan? She is simply wished into life by author Angela Lamb, who is researching Woolf’s original manuscripts for her paper: Virginia Woolf: A Long Shadow, to be delivered at a writers’ conference in IstanbulAlmost a century has passed since her death, and so there is some catching up for Virginia to do.  For Lamb this is a golden opportunity to really get to know her idol and write the most informed paper ever.  But be careful what you wish for …..

The relationship is fractious – hilariously so for the reader, uncomfortably so for the two women.  There are rifts due to class background: Virginia accepting Angela’s help as self-evident; Angela resenting Virginia’s expensive tastes and lack of gratitude.  There are melancholy moments too when Virginia must face the consequences of her suicide.  Life moved on for her husband Leonard, but, of course, she knows nothing of that.  How is Angela to explain?

She makes a better job of her relationship with Virginia than with her teenage daughter, Gerda, who she has dumped in a boarding school to swan off to the Big Apple and her research. (Oh yes, Angela like Virginia is a complex and not completely likeable character.)  Communication with Gerda is via email, but it’s intermittent at best, and just when Gerda’s troubles at the school become unbearable, non-existent.  At which point Gerda run off to New York to find her mother … 

… just as her mother sets off with Virginia to the conference in Istabul.

I had an anxiety attack on Gerda’s behalf.  I would have known better, had I recognised the allusions to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Queen (Andersen’s fairy tales being Gee’s favourite childhood reading).  As it was I was surprised by some of the plot twists that followed.  A knowledge of Woolf’s oeuvre may have helped me anticipate at this point (Orlando, Between The Acts, To The Lighthouse amongst others) but to quote Gee “I don’t want to write novels that are games for the few“.  Prior knowledge of Woolf’s oeuvre is not required. There is plenty of plot to enjoy.

Beneath the fantasy and the globe-trotting adventure, however, lie more writerly concerns.  Gerda is bullied because she is bookish and wishes to become a writer.  Angela is a bestselling writer, though not a literary one. Virginia is a mega-star, who, in the course of the novel, once prejudices have been overcome, becomes not only an inspiration, but a mentor to both.  Due to her untimely suicide, Virginia, at first, has no idea of her posthumous success, and so we see her plagued with doubts about the value of her works.  At the writers’ conference in Istabul, she gives a brief self-deprecating career synopsis.  She was privileged.  She never wrote to survive but would she have written even if she hadn’t had that advantage?

I would have written.  Somehow I would have found my voice.  I would have found a way to be heard, published …. And so must you.  And so will you … The young woman beside me tells me that now it is easier to self-publish, but some of you are ashamed to do this.  Remember, nearly all my books were self-published”.

With those words, Woolf, through Gee (first female chair of the Royal Society of Literature), becomes a mentor to a whole new generation of writers, and, perhaps a new generation of readers (myself included).

4_stars.GIF

Perhaps you are a Woolf aficionado and wish to know if the novel would stack up for you?  Read Simon’s review and interview  with Maggie Gee at Shiny New Books.

 

The read pile for the past two months looks pretty meagre, but then it’s not telling the whole story.

First of all, Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? isn’t pictured.  I had to return it to the library.  

Secondly, I wish to emphasise that for the first time in over 20 years I have read a full-length German novel, Goetheruh, in German!  It’s good to know that I still can.

Thirdly, I was on the road for 3 weeks. 

Fourthly, thanks to said travels, when I pick things up to read in situ, I’ve part-read another five books.  This gives me a head start for the shorter days and longer reading hours of September and October, and For the Record at the end of October should look a little more – shall we say – substantial.

 

Brandenburg Gate

There are thousands upon thousands of books about Berlin.  Where to start?  I started with the first book published by the (relatively) new publisher on the Berlin block, Readux Books.

City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write about Berlin explains why there is so much choice.  For Berlin imposes itself on writers, demanding that the experience be put on the page ….  and yet, as we shall see, it is notoriously difficult to do.

There is a measure of unaccountable time you can spend in Berlin and write it off as extended holiday frippery.  But there comes a Rubiconic moment, after which you’ll find it hard to leave without having something to say for it all. 

So begins Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s 21-page essay on Berlin, the city to which he went on a Fullbright scholarship in 2007-2008, to write a novel.  However, the city of hedonistic excess and what he calls the floating island of privilege took over, eventually leaving a sour taste.  When he wrote his stories, he wanted to show his contempt of such excess.    The pieces were to remain unpublished until they had been significantly reworked (many times over, I think) to fit a new and more mature world view, gained from years of world-wide pilgrimage recorded in his book A Sense of Direction.  It took a while but 

finally I had at last put myself in a position to live in Berlin on my own terms (ambition, resolve) and not on the terms I’d construed as Berlin’s (depravity, irresponsibilility, indolence).

What’s interesting though is he has chosen not to live in Berlin on a permanent basis, invalidating his own argument perhaps? Having left, 

I have found, however, that I cannot shake the urge to write more about Berlin, to revise what I have already written about Berlin, and furthermore to disclaim in advance as insufficiently definitive anything I might conceivably write about Berlin in the future.

Berlin may impose itself but, like some humans, it refuses to be pinned down.  The reasons for this become obvious in David Wagner’s Berlin Triptych (also published by Readux Books, translated by Katy Derbyshire).  The place is in a constant state of flux.  In 2000 Wagner, who has lived in Berlin since 1991, visited many areas of the city and recorded his observations.  He repeated the exercise in 2013.  The three pieces in Berlin Triptych are from a bigger work, published in German as Mauer Park. The first piece, Friedrichsstrasse, was of greatest interest to me, given that two weeks ago I walked down the street from Unter den Linden to Checkpoint Charlie.  Wagner describes that path in great detail and clearly explains why the areas that were formerly East Berlin appear much more affluent and well-maintained than the areas that were formerly West Berlin.  

As for myself, the difference between now and 1980, when I first visited Berlin, is gargantuan.  At that time the U6 stations Mitte and Friedrichstrasse were ghost-stations, through which Weet Berlin trains travelled but did not stop.  Now they are bustling with Friedrichstrasse being a main intersection.  Above ground, however, the intersection between Friedstrasse and Unter den Linden is a disaster area.  If you follow my twitter account, you will have found me lamenting a couple of weeks ago …

Berlin, this is not the Unter Den Linden I came to see

 Wagner explains 

There is little to be seen for the moment of the allegedly legendary crossroads of Friedrichstraße and Unter den Linden (once famed for Café Bauer and the pre-war Café Kranzler). A Babylonian building site and a labyrinth of construction fences have spread out, with power lines now runing above ground atop battlement-like steel constructions.

The cause of this disruption – the building of the U5 extension. Apparently Unter den Linden will be restored by 2016.

The other two pieces in Berlin Triptych document Schönhäuser Allee and the Café M, obviously a favourite haunt of the author. There is a distinct sense of nostalgia in this latter piece, in that the increased commercialism, new decor and modernised menu have changed the mood forever.

The pace of transition in Berlin is breathtaking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much scaffolding and so many cranes on a city tour before.

How many cranes do you see?

 

This is nothing new as a reading of Rory MacLean’s Berlin, Imagine a City, proves. 500 years of city history recounted through word portraits of 24 key individuals.  Written this way, MacLean said at the Edinburgh Book Festival, as he is not impressed by parochial representations of place.  He wants the reader to feel what it was like, building empathy and understanding for the individuals concerned.  He wants his reader to ask, how would I have behaved?

Some characters are well-documented in historical records while for others there is nothing.  So, for example, the opening chapter which takes us back to 1469 and the undocumented life of Konrad von Kölln, a medieval minstrel, is put together using various secondary sources and a lot of imagination.  Next up is a chapter about the Scottish Colin Albany and life in Berlin during the 30 Years War and the first time, in this book at least, when Berlin was overrun and destroyed.  More familiar history appears as the book progresses: Frederick the Great, the founder of Prussia, Schinkel, the architect who build Frederick’s Berlin, still very much in evidence. The ladies are represented with chapters about Lili Neuss (representative of the repressed working class in the industrialise 19th century), Leni Riefstahl (Nazi propagandist) and Marlene Dietrich (non-Nazi).  Literature is represented with chapters about Margarete Böhme, Christopher Isherwood and Bertolt Brecht. Fittingly too, pages are devoted to David Bowie, a man who has reinvented himself as many times – if not more – than Berlin itself.  Moving to Berlin in late 70’s to escape the cocaine-induced paranoia of the Thin White Duke, not only did he find himself but he also penned Heroes – a song which played a key role in the fall of the wall.  How?  You’ll have to read the book!

Really you should. It is wonderful.  The book of my summer. Politics, industry, architecture, literature and music – the very fabric of life are all interwoven to form a tapestry of Berlin through the ages.   MacLean also backs up the arguments of the first two writers in this post, that Berlin’s identity is based on its own volatility (and thus so hard to capture contemporaneously. See footnote.)    When asked at the Edinburgh Book Festival, what next for Berlin, MacLean responded with who knows?  What my book shows is that the power of individual imagination can shape a place for good or ill. 

City of Rumor 3stars.GIF / Berlin Triptych 3stars.GIF / Berlin, Imagine A City Five_Stars.GIF

 

Footnote: At the author signing I put forward Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s idea that it is impossible to write about Berlin until you have left it. MacLean, who now lives in London, nodded. I found it very difficult, he said. That’s why I had to write a history.

It wasn’t officially the Margaret Jull Costa weekend, of course, but a glance at the programme showed a series of events presumably built around the decision of Ali Smith – a guest selector at this year’s festival – to devote one event entirely to Margaret Jull Costa, 3 times winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Prize for literary translation.

i can’t remember such prominence being given to a translator before.  This is a good thing and I hope the start of a trend.

Ali Smith opened with a eulogy to the importance of translation and introduced her interviewee with perhaps the best chosen words I will hear this entire festival.  “Today we are in the presence of many of my favourite writers … all in one body.  Please welcome, Margaret Jull Costa.”

Ali Smith and Margaret Jull Costa

What followed was an introduction to 5 new-to-me Spanish and Portuguese writers with Jull Costa and Smith alternating readings between them.  I can’t say I was enamoured of this format. I would have preferred less reading and more about the craft of translation.  However,  I was introduced to many interesting sounding authors and books. (See footnote 1.)  In fact, I could say this event has served as my introduction to Portuguese literature, having only ever read one Portuguese novel, if my memory serves aright.

The chosen texts showed the breadth of Jull Costa’s translation work and her preference for literature which mixes realism and fantasy.

A guest appearance was made by the daughter of Medardo Fraile, an author who needed to be persuaded into allowing Jull Costa to translate his short stories.  His daughter described the process.  Jull Costa submitted a few of her translations to the committee, comprising of author, his wife and his daughter.  They meticulously examined these around the kitchen tabland began to trust the translator when they realised that her pen was as loving as the author’s own. Fraile died during the translation of the stories that make up Things Look Different in the Light, but by that time the family trusted Jull Costa implicitly and allowed her to complete the project.

When Ali Smith said that this book contained the best stories she has ever read, there was no longer any need to guess whether a copy would be coming home with me ….

Audience Q&A allowed some time to discuss Jull Costa’s career and her craft.  Thankfully, as I was already disappointed from the previous night’s event in which she had shared the stage and billing with Bernardo Ataxga.   Unfortunately she had only been given time to read two short poems.  She’s a gracious lady and didn’t appear to mind.  I did though as I had attended to hear the translator talking about the challenges of translating the author’s work.  Perhaps my expectations were at fault.  What is clear is that I am missing the translation slams.  There aren’t any scheduled on this year’s program. 

The third Jull Costa event wasn’t really but it was an event where both novelists, Javier Cercas and Michel Laub, are translated by her.  Another event where the shared billing meant nothing – one author hogging the limelight, talking far too much (and knowing he was doing so), then giving a “short” reading that was anything but. It’s bad form and I feel sorry for the second author and the chair when this happens.  I mean how does a chair intervene discreetly?  Arrange a signal before going on stage?  

Javier Cercas and Michel Laub

I’m not going to say much about the novels as, due to timing issues, I haven’t completed them yet.  I have sampled the first 50 pages of both though and I must say that Laub’s Diary of the Fall is a huge surprise.   I would say pleasant but it is full of uncomfortable themes: social and religious prejudice and the Holocaust.  Nevertheless I’m looking forward to reading to the end later today.  Cercas’s Outlaws will take a bigger commitment to finish.  First of all, it’s much longer and secondly, it doesn’t answer its own core question. This is in line with the author’s definition of good literature, which must leave enough room for the reader to find the answer for himself.  Not sure I entirely agree. Books with endings that are too ambiguous or make me feel that the author is just toying with me have been hurled at the wall before now!  What fate awaits Outlaws?

———-

Footnote 1

The 5 texts sampled were: The Maias – Eça de Queiroz, Raised from the Crowd – José Saramango, The Word Tree – Teolinda Gersāo, The Infatuations – Javier Marías, Everthing Looks Different in the Light and other Stories – Medardo Fraile

 © Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

Fest – Mark McCrum

And so the day dawns on which Edinburgh Book Festival starts for me.  Unusually I missed the first week, but then I was rather distracted! i will, however, be making up for lost time during week two. Whatever I’m expecting I can assure you it will be nothing like the festival of Mark McCrum’s invention (or I do hope not).

The small fictional literary festival at Mold-on-Wold comes complete with its own programme, and sparks fly from the outset. Bryce Peabody, a savage literary critic, has just decimated Dan Dickson’s latest novel.  Not content with that he decides to attend Dickson’s event and call him to task during the Q&A.  Such a nice man. Later it becomes apparent that this is the warm-up for his own event the following day, when he’s going to dish some dirt that will set off real fireworks …..

Is it such a surprise that he is found dead in his bed, before he can do so?

Enter Francis Meadowes, author of the crime series featuring George Brathwaite, an amateur sleuth.  Meadowes, in the right place at the right time, finds himself investigating Peabody’s death, using his fictional alter-ego’s methods. It all gets rather meta,  in the most delicious way.

This isn’t some cozy little murder mystery, the sort I might write for my clever-clogs detective, George Brathwaite, for the amusement of a bunch of readers, who might freak out if they saw a road accident, let alone a murder. Actual people are dying here.

Of course, everyone has a motive for wanting Peabody dead: authors he has savaged, ex-partners he has betrayed,  the ex-partner of his current amour.  There are so many grudges against him, it’s hard to keep count.  

While Peabody may be a vitriolic man, is there any real poison in McCrum’s pen?  I’m not sure.  McCrum is an established journalist, ghost writer and non-fiction author who has chosen to self-publish his first novel.  Economics seems the motivating force behind that decision. As for the literary luvvies with which the novel is populated, they are pretty ghastly (and probably very recognisable) literary types.  The audience doesn’t escape the satire either.  However, there does appear to be a particular bite in the portrayal of the festival director ….

In the end though, despite Meadowes’s protestations against coziness, there is a very Agatha feel to the mystery: it’s set in the countryside, everyone has a motive, and some of it is a bit implausible,  Neither is the real perpetrator that difficult to spot.  Like all good Agatha’s the climax is a set piece.

This was not the way Francis had planned it – or wanted it.  Brathwaite would have hated a set-up like this – as near as dammit to the traditional ‘group denouement’ of the Golden Age.

Well, if the fictional detective wasn’t happy, I was.  I enjoyed the setup, the satire and the meta …  And now I’m really in the mood to enjoy the world’s greatest literary festival, where none of these backroom petty rivalries exist … do they?

35_stars.GIF

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

I said I was going to be busy in August and I did not lie.   Here are the reasons why the blog has been quiet lately.

1) A trip to Thuringia.  Loved Weimar so much last year, decided to go back and explore the area in more detail this year.  A more enchanting place, I ne’er did find (with the exception of Munich and Bavaria). Here’s the view of Weimar from Schloss Belvedere.

2) A visit to the House of the Romantics in Jena. An in depth look at the German Romantic Movement – details of which I will be processing for a while.

House of the Romantics, Jena

 

3) The physical highlight of the trip, the hike to the Wartburg in Eisenach and the resulting trip back to medieval times.  The claim made is that this is the most significant castle in the whole of Germany … and not just because this is where Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German in just 10 weeks …  at this desk.

Martin Luther’s Desk in the Wartburg

4) No trip to Weimar is complete without a trip to one of the many theatres.   I chose to attend an investigation of the relationship between Goethe and his wife, Christiane at the Theater im Gewölbe in the Cranach Haus.  A tiny theatre with about 150 seats.  Cosy.

Theater im Gewölbe, Weimar

 

5) A visit to the book shop – yes, just one.

As my luggage was already heavy – like any self-respecting bookworm, I’d already packed far too much reading material – I had to reign in my acquisitions.  Even so, I judged the amount I could acquire to perfection – my suitcase on the way home weighed 20.1 kg!

The Books I Took

 

The Books I Brought Home

6) On the way home, a 3-day city break in Berlin.  The Hauptstadt, not comparing favourably to Thuringia, if I’m honest.  Far too many building works and cranes destroying the views. (Not that Weimar was entirely innocent in this regard, but there were no cranes.)  Nor was I such a literary tourist there.  Day One spent hopping on and off the tour bus, trying to see the famous sights.  Day Two escaping the city to visit the beach on the Wannsee.  Day Three non-book shopping on the Kurfürstendamm.  Still thanks to a tip from Katy at Love German Books, I did discover the Joseph-Roth  Diele, a restaurant decorated entirely in homage to the great Austrian writer. It sells the books too! Katy, if you’re reading this, Rossetti says next time we’re in Berlin, he will happily follow up any further recommendations you may have.

Joseph Roth Diele, Berlin

 

So there’s a quick catch-up.  Plenty of stories to follow (perhaps in November – assuming there’s an appetite in the blogosphere for a fourth German Lit Month.  Is there?)  For now though, I have one day to unpack and repack.  Tomorrow sees me heading off to the Edinburgh Fringe and, of course, The Edinburgh International Book Festival.  What a month!  I could get used to this ….

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

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