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imageWinner of the Sapir Prize for Best Debut
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Bad news first.  It’s just as well that I read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s second novel, Waking Lions, last year. (It made my best of 2016 list.) Otherwise I might not have continued beyond chapter one of her debut, because of the crude talk. However, because of last year’s experience, I gave One Night, Markovitch 3 chapters, by the end of which there was no chance of me abandoning it.  All my hopes for another complex and absorbing read were coming to fruition (and the crude talk had thankfully settled down).

Of course, I know that chapter one was establishing essential differences  between the plain, inexperienced farmer, Yaakov Markovitch and handsome, virile, action man, Zeev Feinberg, the two men whose lives form the backbone of the novel.  Theirs is a friendship formed when Markovitch saves Zeinberg’s life, not once but twice in the same night.  Circumstances dictate, however, that they must both flee.  Thus do they end up on a boat to Europe, where they are to mary Jewish women seeking to flee the Nazis. They are to divorce once their brides have  obtained the necessary permission to stay in British Palestine.  However, when Markovitch, whose face is so instantly forgettable, he makes an excellent arms smuggler, sets eyes on Bella, the most beautiful woman in the room, he falls irrevocably in love and determines to make her love him.   Once back in Palestine, in his first ever act of assertiveness, he refuses to divorce her.

Is this a romantic gesture, or an act of cruelty?  Or both? Certainly Markovitch’s life is never straightforward again.  Neither, for that matter is Zeev Feinberg’s.  Having divorced his European bride, he is free to marry the love of his life, Sonia.  Yet their happiness isn’t a given.  Much heartache and many separations follow,  resulting in both men bringing up children not their own – sometimes knowingly, sometimes not.  And then, just when life seems to be settling,  there’s a tragedy, or a war, or the revealing of a deeply hidden secret.  It seems that love and life are designed to test these characters to the max.

And in the testing Gundar-Goshen’s characters (and I include all, except the contemptible Bella) demonstrate not only their flaws, but such spirit, sensuality, generosity, weakness and vulnerability that I couldn’t help but love them. My heart broke with theirs.  Not that I knew we were heading for heartache, as the narrative tone is frequently comic with fabulous (as in fable-like) events and sprinklings of magical realism. For instance, the lustrous moustache of Zeev Feinberg reflects the man’s vitality;  Sonia always smells of oranges; her son Yair of peaches; houses freeze or heat up, according to the emotions experienced within. That tone led me to believe there would be, after all the trivialities, raising children, working to earn a living, eating a good meal or two, a mellow, contented, if not exactly happy, ending. But then, after all that effort, both personal and political, when the homeland had been gained (see footnote), out of the blue, the cruellest tragedy of all.

Crack.  That’s the sound of my heart breaking all over again.

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Footnote: The personal drama is, of course, an allegory for the political events of the day. Cf: Review at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

It’s also a stop 3 of my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press reading project. Next stop: Austria

I remember the first time I met Teffi.  It was in the literary oasis of Watermark Books, King’s Cross Station (sadly no more, and funnily enough I haven’t visited London since it closed. Make of that what you will.) They had a table tucked at the back of the shop, filled with translated fiction, most of it published by independent presses. A table I approached with great excitement every time I visited, because I knew I would find something special.  One time Teffi’s Subtly Worded was waiting to greet me.  I opened it randomly and this is what I read:

I’m in love with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. I hate Natasha, first because I’m jealous, second because she betrayed him.

Teffi was talking about her 13-year old self, and her teenage literary crush.  He was mine also; he probably still is.   And that sentence was enough to secure a place for Subtly Worded and Teffi’s other works, published by Pushkin Press on my shelves.

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Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson

For obvious reasons, in this centenary year of the Russian Revolution I decided to read Rasputin and Other Stories, a selection of essays, that shows Teffi to have been anything but the fool her nom-de-plume suggests.  Born in 1872, Teffi lived through turbulent times; a liberal in the days of the last Tsar, not Bolshevik as Lenin came to power, and yet she survived.  In the introduction  this volume, Robert Chandler attributes this to the witty tone of her voice, which made it palatable to her foes, despite incisive and non-complimentary observations.  Nevertheless she was eventually forced into exile in 1920, never to return to her homeland again.

The first 2/3rds of these autobiographical writings cover her childhood, her writing career up until her exile. We see her develop from a nervous ingenue – My first steps as an author were terrifying –  to the confident investigative journalist gleefully thwarting Rasputin’s attempts to hypnotise her.  The final 1/3 comtains memories of famous Russian authors.

Taking centre place are the two longest pieces; one chronicling Lenin’s ruthless takeover of the newspaper, The New Life, and the second, her two encounters with Rasputin.  In both she is dropping the names of famous Russians like sweeties. She’s not being boastful – this was simply her world, and she is describing people and events as she experienced them.  The pieces, written years after the events, are therefore lively, filled with quirky details that historians would pass over.  For instance:

Lenin was living in Petersburg illegally. He was, of course, under official surveillance. ….. Nevertheless,  he would come into the office, quite freely, day after day, simply turning up the collar of his coat when he left so as not to be recognised. And not one of the gumshoes on duty ever asked any questions about this character who was so keen to cover up his chin.

Teffi may pass herself off as a clown (in the essay My Pseudonym) and some of the pieces may have comic intent, but others are bitter, such as The Gaderene Swine, which describes the panicked flight of the Whites in 1919. Neither does she hold back when delivering her judgments of people. How’s this for a sardonic put-down?

Andrei Bely writes that Merezhkovsky wore shoes with pompoms, and that these pompoms epitomised the whole of Merezhkovsky’s life. Both his speech and his thought had “pompoms”.

Not the most precise of descriptions, but certainly not a very kind one. Though Andrei Bely was not without “pompoms” of his own.

Stories about her childhood and her early encounters with literature are full of charm.  Her meeting with Tolstoy – she decides to go and plead for Prince Andrei’s life – shows none of the great author’s curmudgeonly side.  I was delighted to find My First Tolstoy included in this collection too. Besides providing a link to my first Teffi, it added the -est onto an altogether fine reading experience.

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This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

It’s also a stop 2 of my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press reading project.  Next stop: Israel

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Translated from Japanese by Michael Emmerich

Inoue burst onto the Japanese literary scene in 1949 with two novellas, the second of which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.  But it was his debut that pleased me more.

The Hunting Gun is a novella set within a traditional framework. This is a structure that always delights me, as it allows an exploration of both past and present, adding additional poignancy to the present, when that is a sad one.  It’s particularly effective here in that it left me feeling much more sympathy towards a character who, in some respects, deserves his current lot.

Following publication of a prose poem describing a man seen climbing Mount Amagi with his dog, a double-barrel shotgun resting on his shoulder, the unnamed narrator is surprised to receive a letter from Misugi Josuke claiming to have been the subject  of the poem.  He also sends her three letters, one from his niece, the second from his wife, and the third, a posthumous letter from his lover. He wants to share the reasons for the desolatedried-up riverbed of a man the poet recognised within him.

The three letters form the body  of the novella, and they tell of a family destroyed by a long-standing secret.  When Josuke’s niece, Shoko, reads her mother’s diary following her death by suicide, she is shocked to discover that her mother and Josuke had been lovers for years.  You might expect the potential damage of the affair to dissipate once the lover is dead.  However, Saiko’s death turns out to be the catalyst for the complete disintegration of the family, as the two living women react in wholly unexpected ways.

Revisiting the affair from 3 viewpoints – the shocked niece, the abandoned wife, and the beloved – the letters are so psychologically astute that they provide a comprehensive answer to the question as to whether a man can write convincingly as a woman. Yes, yes, and thrice yes!  They show the damage inflicted  by the illicit affair, not only to the wife, Midori, (who has always known) but also to the lover – the burdens of betrayal, guilt and loneliness.  Also the contradictions inherent to human nature.  How can Saiko behave this way when she could not forgive her own  husband for imfidelity? All this and not a cliché in sight!

It appears that Josuke himself hasn’t suffered all that much, but following the receipt of the letters, it is his time to reap what he has sown.  He deserves much of it, but I still felt that his niece’s reaction was going to inflict far more pain that was his due.

The lover’s relationship in Bullfight is far more opaque.  That Tsugami (married, wife and two children living elsewhere) and Saikiko (war widow) are unhappy is not in question. This is the first mention of them as a couple: but Saikiko had come over the previous evening and they had started quarrelling, as they always did, about whether or not to break up. As the novella progresses, and one unhappy scene follows another, you’ve got to assume that Saikiko regrets being attracted by Tsugami’s unsavoury side.

Elsewhere Tsugami is described as an isolated lonely, soul with a core that refused to catch. In matters of the heart, maybe. He’s a different entity altogether when it comes to business, particularly that business of the bullfight. Tsugami, as editor-in-chief of a newspaper, agrees to sponsor a Japanese bullfighting tournament (one in which bull fights bull).  Besides generating money for the paper from ticket sales and onsite gambling, it will bring some colour back to war-torn Osaka and make his name.  From the start though the enterprise is beset with difficulty, with setback after setback, and exponentially rising costs.  Tsugami is engaged in an exhausting bullfight with his own project, forced eventually to accept the help of black marketeers and other shady characters to gain a chance of success.

The impact of this is that Tsugami, the cool lover, becomes the distanced one, and Saikiko’s love threatens to turn to hate.  She’s not even sure whether she wants Tsugami’s big gamble to succeed or fail.  While Tsugami’s project allows Inoue to invest his tale with a measure of post-war state-of-the-nation analysis,   I always felt that the bullfight itself was a metaphor for the struggle and tussle of Tsugami’s and Saikiko’s relationship – a suspicion finally confirmed in the dramatic closing scene.


This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

It’s also the start of my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press Reading Project.  For my first circuit I’ll be travelling East to West from and to Japan.  I enjoyed Inoue’s clarity so much, that I’ll be reading  Life of A Counterfeiter upon my return.

Next stop: Russia

Given that Pushkin Press are second only to the Folio Society in terms of the number of books I have in my collection, I thought it might be a good idea to gather them all together and allocate them some shelf space.  It’ll only take an hour or so, I thought.

Three hours later, because they were indeed scattered to the four winds, this is the result.

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Pushkin Press Corner

They are, like every other shelved book in the house, double-stacked.  The TBR is in the front row, so that I can see at a glance what I have to read. (This collection is, by the way, the result of many years of adding a Pushkin Press title to book orders to avoid postage costs, purchasing Pushkins in sales as well as the publisher’s generosity with review copies.) Along the top we have the signature Pushkin Collection titles arranged A-Z and down the side other Pushkin imprints arranged Z-A.

When I started thinking about what to read during Pushkin Press Fortnight, I decided that I would do an around the world trip. Looking at this little lot, I have enough for an Around the World and Back Again project. So that’s the project I will begin on Tuesday. The starting point is Japan, simply because the last book I read prior to reading for Pushkin Press Fortnight was partially set there. I won’t get round the world in the fortnight but it will be interesting to see how many air miles I rack up.

 

A decade! Who would have thought it?  This blog has come a long way since I lost that notebook with my reading notes, and decided to store them, henceforth, in a place where I wouldn’t lose them.  Many good things have happened along the way – far too many to list here.  Highlights must include German Literature Month (6 years and counting), meeting online booklovers in the flesh (I hope to meet more of you some time in the future) and gaining access to special places and events that would have been off limits otherwise.  I was also quoted in the Wall Street Journal!!

But let’s not forget the authors, their publishers, and WordPress without which this blog would not have existed.

I now have a books read index of over 1000. I recently reviewed this and I was struck by the following:

– the number of books I read due to the recommendations, readalongs and initiatives of fellow bloggers.  This community we have is valuable, not only to ourselves but to the world of literature at large.  Forgive the namedropping here but, as Sebastian Barry once said to me, as I was staring into his deep brown eyes, trying not to swoon: Literary bloggers are changing the face of reading.  (This was a book-signing and THE special literary festival moment that will probably never, ever be surpassed.)

– how few I have forgotten.  There are some – those that I think are best forgotten – but they are a rare few.  I can remember most in sufficient detail to discuss.  So the time spent reviewing for this blog is not lost time. In fact reviewing makes me think deeper and appreciate more.

There are also a number of titles I absolutely adored but did not receive the attention or the praise I think they deserved. So, as a treat for yourselves, seeing as you’ve been putting up with me for 10 whole years, I have three of these to giveaway. My thanks to Saraband, Pushkin Press and Alma Books for making this blogiversary giveaway possible.

1) As I’m based in Scotland, a Scottish novel first, although there’s not much Scotland in it. Regardless it really is An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful.

imagePublisher’s synopsis
An eminent British writer returns to the resort hotel in the Japanese mountains where he once spent a beautiful, snowed-in winter. It was there he fell in love and wrote his best-selling novel, The Waterwheel, accusing America of being in denial about the horrific aftermath of the Tokyo firebombings and the nuclear destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we learn more about his earlier life, however – as a student in Bloomsbury, involved with a famous American painter – we realise that he too is in denial, trying to escape past events that are now rapidly catching up with him. A sweeping novel of East and West, love and war, truths and denials.

Link to my review

2) You all know by now that my heart belongs to Germany, and so I’ve chosen what is quite possibly my favourite German 20th-century classic. (Well it might tie with Buddenbrooks.) Ulrich Plenzdorf’s The New Sorrows of Young W.

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Publisher’s synopsis
Edgar W., teenage dropout, unrequited lover, unrecognized genius – and dead – tells the story of his brief, spectacular life.

It is the story of how he rebels against the petty rules of communist East Germany to live in an abandoned summer house, with just a tape recorder and a battered copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther for company. Of his passionate love for the dark-eyed, unattainable kindergarten teacher Charlie. And of how, in a series of calamitous events (involving electricity and a spray paint machine), he meets his untimely end.

Absurd, funny and touching, this cult German bestseller, now in a new translation, is both a satire on life in the GDR and a hymn to youthful freedom.

Link to my review

3) Finally, The Scent of Lemon Leaves, a  Spanish award-winning novel which took me completely by surprise.  I’ve loaned my proof copy a few times and all who have read it loved it.  Whoever wins this has an extra-special treat in store, because Alma Books has generously donated the last copy of the first edition hardback.  (And I’m a tinsy bit jealous.)

imagePublisher’s synopsis
Having left her job and boyfriend, thirty-year-old Sandra decides to stay in a village on the Costa Blanca in order to take stock of her life and find a new direction. She befriends Karin and Fredrik, an elderly Norwegian couple, who provide her with stimulating company and take the place of the grandparents she never had. However, when she meets Julián, a former concentration-camp inmate who has just returned to Europe from Argentina, she discovers that all is not what it seems and finds herself involved in a perilous quest for the truth.

As well as being a powerful account of self-discovery and an exploration of history and redemption, The Scent of Lemon Leaves is a sophisticated and nail-biting page-turner by one of Spain’s most accomplished authors.

Link to my review

Let me know which book(s) you’d like to win in comments.  UK entrants only. The giveaway will close on Monday 13.02.2017, so that I can send the Pushkin Press title out to coincide with Pushkin Press fortnight. The excitement continues.  Long may it last.

 

It’s fair to say that David Young hit the ground running.  His debut, Stasi Child won the 2016 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger. This sets quite a challenge for his second, Stasi Wolf, released today.

The novels are set in 1970s in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) – the mid-life,  as it turned out, of the short-lived state. At that time the GDR was as stable as it was going to be.  Its institutions had been established with the Stasi firmly in control.  Oberleutnant Müller  and her deputy, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner, are Volkspolizei, criminal police,  free to investigate their cases without hindrance, provided the Stasi doesn’t impose constraints.  Which of course they inevitably do, because nothing must come to light that tarnishes the reputation of the socialist state.

So Müller has her hands tied behind her back in both cases. In the first, the case of the dead teenager whose bullet-riddled corpse is found lying in the snow facing away from the Wall, thus looking as though she was shot trying to escape from the West. Müller’s remit is to identify the body, not the perpetrator. Of course this stinks of a Stasi cover-up, but who are they protecting?  In the second, the case of snatched twins in Halle-Neustadt, she must find the babies without instigating house-to-house (or rather flat-to-flat) searches. The populace of the GDR’s flagship building project must not be unsettled.  But where traditional detective work is forbidden, creative methods must be deployed ….

Running parallel to the investigation in both novels is a first-person narrative, the purpose of which is provide background of the circumstances leading up to the crimes Müller is investigating.  These narratives are effective in adding depth, and take both novels beyond the police procedural. In Stasi Child this narrative starts 9 months earlier at a youth reform centre on the island of Rügen, a place of where sadistic brutes were free to inflict unfathomable psychological and physical torment.  In Stasi Wolf, the second narrative begins some 10 years previously.  The narrator is Franzi, a somewhat simple-minded woman who documents the struggles she and her husband have had in having children.  The convergence of the investigations and these stories accelerates the pace, resulting in an almost breathless rush to read to the end.

What I would say though is that the ending of Stasi Wolf is physically impossible. (I know from experience.) I’m happy to swallow the convenient connections to Müller’s private life for the sake of plot, but the final chase to Oberhof was the point my credulity snapped.  There are other seemingly improbable events in these novels, though most turn out to be based on historical facts. Young has researched meticulously and the atmosphere and daily life in the socialist state are convincingly brought to life.  I particularly love the sense of place, whether that be cold war Berlin, Halle-Neustadt, the Isle of Rügen, Oberhof in the Thüringian Forest, or Brocken in the Harz Mountains.

While Stasi Wolf is an excellent follow-up, Stasi Child is an exceptional 5-star thriller. There’s a pervading sense of menance which accompanies the Stasi officer, Jäger (the Hunter), which is missing for most of the second novel.   An arch-manipulator, he plays everyone in Stasi Child, including Müller,  in both her professional and her private lives. Jäger takes great delight in telling her about his professional oneupmanship but Müller has yet to understand the extent of the betrayal with regard to her husband.  I’m calling this The Great Secret.  If Müller ever learns it, will she continue to swallow the party line for the sake of the state?

One final point.  That final phrase sequence in Stasi Child.   Never has anything chilled me more.  Brrrrrrr.

 

 

I’m taking a different approach to literary festivals this year.  Pre-festival I’m going to read some of the books I’ve bought in previous years.  That way new festival purchases won’t simply get added to the old ones, and the overall effect on the TBR should be a zero increase rate.  That’s the theory anyway.  I’ll test it out with Ayewrite! which is just one month away.

First up is the book I bought following one of the best events I’ve ever attended at Ayewrite. The year was 2015 and Chris Dolan chaired an event entitled My Era is better than Yours!  3 authors were asked to pitch their chosen eras to the audience, which then voted on the one which appealed most.  The choice was between Tudor England (Rory Clements), The English Civil War (Michael Arnold) or Georgian England (Antonia Hodgson). I forget the way the public vote went but I came out and bought Antonia Hodgson’s debut, for which she won the 2014 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger.

imageI was intrigued by a crime novel set in the notorious debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea. Not the Marshalsea brought to life in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, but the previous iteration – a place where the governor was so violent, he could act with impunity, (whipping prisoners to death, chaining them to corpses as punishment, etc) because as long as the place made a profit, its aristocratic owner didn’t really care what went on behind the gates.

So how could anyone make a profit in a debtor’s prison?  Because the debtors had to pay for food and lodgings and any other services that might be rendered. If they couldn’t, they were removed from the gentleman’s area and thrown into The Common Side, a squalid hell on earth, where gaol fever  (typhus) ran rampant and survival was improbable.

When Tom Hawkins lands in the Marshalsea for a £10 debt, it is a place in crisis.  The recent death of debtor Captain Roberts has been deemed a suicide (although his hanged body bears evidence of a severe beating), and now his ghost haunts the place.  His widow remains in situ, determined to discover her husband’s murderer.  This is not good for the reputation of the prison’s aristocratic owner.  So when Tom, having made an enemy of the governor, finds himself almost at death’s door, he is happy to come to an arrangement with the authorities.  If he can identify Captain Roberts’s murderer, his debt will be repaid and he will find himself a free man once more.

Little does he know what he’s let himself in for ….

The danger to Tom’s life and limb in the Marshalsea is palpable – whether it be from smallpox or typhus, corrupt officialdom, government spies or his roommate , Samuel Fleet, widely suspected of being the murderer.  Not that I cared much for Tom at first.  He’s the malcreant son of a vicar, reaping what he has sown through wine, women and gambling. Though not yet entirely without conscience, he hasn’t forgotten the meaning of charity and loyalty.  Personal betrayal was not a word in his vocabulary, but 4 days in the Marshalsea will etch it on his soul forever.

While the plot is good, the historical detail is a masterclass.  Hodgson shows how the Marshalsea had a microcosmic economy of its own.  There were those who, having established successful businesses which enabled them to pay off their debt, chose to remain within the confines of the prison walls.   The mix of fictional and historical characters is interesting also: the governor and most of the wardens and lawyers were real enough and their histories are included in an appendix.  So too was the infamous Moll King, mistress of the den of iniquity  coffee house Tom chose to frequent, which featured in the painting Morning by William Hogarth. That’s the world waiting for Tom, should he escape the Marshalsea: dirty, ribald, just as immoral and treacherous.  Hodgson paints the reality of that Hogarthian London too. It’s somewhat of an eye-opener to say the least!