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“Hell reigns”‘ he (Joseph Roth) writes to (Stefan) Zweig.  He also says there can be no compromises with the enemy.  Anyone who continues to have business with Germany,  anyone who so much as maintains a connection to Germany, is a monster.

….

They resent Thomas Mann for taking so long to make himself one of the exiles, for trying not to wreck things with the regime in Germany, for not wanting to lose the German market.

(Extracts from SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK, Volker Weidermann)

Earlier this year I read Volker Weidermann’s retelling of the summer of 1936, when the exiled literati of Nazi Germany (Zweig, Roth, Keun etc.) congregated in Ostend to console and encourage each other.  I haven’t stopped thinking of it since and a fascination with the 1930’s is developing. Reading the views of the exiles about Thomas Mann quoted above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was colluding with the Nazi state for the sake of his book sales.

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Translated by Jeannette K Ringold

“Fair criticism or not? I have been wondering, and so I decided to kick off my #dutchlitautumn with Britta Böhler’s retelling of a pivotal three days in 1936 during which Thomas Mann deliberated whether to publish an open letter denouncing the Nazi regime.

Böhler’s fictionalisation cleverly writes into a historical gap.  While Mann wrote copious diaries, there is very little covering these particular three days.  As Mann’s deliberations are not on record,  Böhler can set out his thoughts and concerns without without fear of contradiction.  I have no doubts that these are based in the realities of Mann’s mindset at that particular time: not just those of the public persona, but of the family man and the private individual.  I separate those two facets deliberately, because there were secrets that Mann kept from his wife that were written in diaries hidden in his beloved Munich home, and that had been confiscated by the Nazis.  His fear of the Nazis discovering these and the resulting damage to his reputation is very palpable.

The timeframe of the novel is extended backwards in time through Mann’s thoughts which cover his marriage to a rich Jewish heiress, the raising of his children and his early criticism of the Nazi regime.  His exile in Switzerland from 1933 was in some ways self-imposed.  Warned by friends not to return, as arrest was imminent, he took their advice, and brought his half-Jewish children out of Germany before the Nazis got hold of them.  But the Nazis wouldn’t leave him in peace. Fined for his abandonment (!), his property confiscated, they continued to persecute him from afar. And yet, as he was not Jewish, his books were not banned.  A full denunciation of the regime would result in his books being burned with unfavourable attention being directed to his Jewish publisher.  Would it also constitute abandonment of his loyal German readers?   How would he feed his family when his Nobel prize money (which he had judiciously banked abroad) ran out?

Böhler succeeds in putting Mann in the moment, on the cusp of a momentous decision, which would result in the permanent loss of not just his income and his home, but his homeland.  The result is a human portrait of a man deliberating the pros and the cons until the deciding factor tips the balance; it is a picture enabling a more reasoned and charitable assessment than that of the exiles in Ostend.

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Who would want to be without Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month?” asks Sally-Ann Spencer in the 20th anniversary edition of New Books in German. The good news is that neither Caroline nor I want to be without it. So it is our great pleasure to announce that German Literature Month VI is now inked in our diaries for this coming November.

Albeit a little less structured than in previous iterations. We’ve learned that regular GLMers are not short of ideas, and love to read as they please. So that’s what German Literature Month VI is about. Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, novellas, short stories, plays, poetry, classic or contemporary, written by male or female, the choice is yours. As long as the original work was written in German, read as you please, and enjoy yourselves!

That said, there are a couple of scheduled activities for those who like to participate in group reading.

1) I will be hosting a Krimi week during week two concentrating mainly on Austrian and Swiss crime fiction. (If anyone is looking for a cracking read to discuss that week, I recommend Ursula P Archer’s Five.)

2) Caroline has scheduled a Literature and War readalong for Friday 25 November. The book for discussion is Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing.

We are very much looking forward to this, and hope you will join us. Don’t forget to tell us your plans. There’s often as much fun in the planning as there is in the reading!

Sent from my iPad

WARNING: This is a long post about the best literary event I’ll attend this year, and three cracking books that I read for it.  There is much I wish to say.

What makes or breaks a literary festival event for the audience?  The chair, of course.  Not the one you’re sitting on, but the person in charge of the author(s). I’ve seen events fail because of a) the chair being too awestruck to converse rationally, b) the chair being determined to prove their intellectual superiority,  c) the chair not being able to control the length of the author readings, and d) multiple other pitfalls that can happen along the way.  c) is a particular bugbear of mine so my heart sank when Craig Sisterton asked the audience whether they wanted the three authors at this event to read from their work and the audience, by majority vote, answered yes.  However, and all credit to the three authors concerned, their readings were kept to between 3-5 minutes each.  Enough to hook the audience into the work (and sell a few copies afterwards) and not too much to bore folk like me who inwardly scream I can read the book for myself, thanks! (N.B if a reading is too long, I never read the book.)

Before I reveal the authors in question, a few more words about Craig Sisterton’s chairing.  One word suffices really.  Masterful.  The focus of the event was writing in exile. So two Scottish and one English author discussing the foreign settings of their novels and the reasons why they chose those settings.  There was a lot of ground to cover, but Sisterton ensured that it was.  TIme was allocated fairly between the three, with natural, and often witty linkages segueing from one author to the next. Not a single note in sight. (I appreciate just how much preparation or natural talent that takes.) Hats off, Mr Sisterton, take a well deserved bow.  My applause at the end of the event was as much for you as for the authors.

Time though for me to reveal the three authors and my thoughts about the books I read for this event, starting with the author on the right and the book he is reading from.

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From left to right: Craig Sisterton, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Michael Ridpath, Craig Russell

The Ghosts of Altona, the 7th in Craig Russell’s Jan Fabel series is set in Hamburg, and won the 2015 Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. (The final one incidentally.  The prize has now been renamed the McIlvanney Prize.)  I hadn’t heard of the author before (despite him being a recipient of the CWA Dagger in the Library), but an award-winning book set in Germany was always going to demand my attention.  The question was, do I start with book 1 or with book 7?  Unusually I plumped for Book 7, because then I would be up-to-date and wouldn’t need to read the 6 earlier books ….

image…  or so I thought.  What I found between these pages sent me immediately to the website of Bookdonors, where I purchased the first 3 of the series in the current 3 for 2 offer.   For the ghosts of Altona are the living dead – those who have returned from near death experiences, including the detective Jan Fabel himself.  Fabel is happy to be alive, although some with similar experiences are not.  This includes a social worker now suffering from Cotard’s syndrome (believing he is dead.)  Another ghost is losing his mind and all too aware of what is happening and so writes a note to himself to remind him of the reasons why he must kill his fellow old-timer and best friend.   But Monika is the most haunting ghost of them all.  The discovery of her remains is the trigger for a killing spree linking former members of a death cult and perhaps the  most chilling psychopath ever with all of those identified above,  and Jan Fabel is determined to crack the case.  After all, he failed to do so 25 years previously when he was just a rookie.

Amidst the action are some compelling psychological portraits as well as the argument about near death experience.  Is it a supernatural one or are there rational, biological explanations?  However, the determining factor in my decision to read the entire series is the way Russell, a fellow Germanophile, has interwoven German cultural references, specifically gothic and Romantic ones into the story.  Oh yes, I’ll happily take as many novels as Russell cares to write playing that particular riff.

As will the Germans.  Such is their appreciation for the series that they have made 3 Jan Fabel films, and the Hamburg Police have awarded Russell the Hamburg Police Star.

imageMichael Ridpath, on the other hand,  cannot find a German publisher for his spy series set in Nazi Germany.  The difficulty lies in the hero  being a Prussian military officer.  As Ridpath explained to me in the signing queue, this are still some sensitivities regarding Prussian militarism in contemporary Germany.

The first in the series is set in 1938 when Hitler was steering Europe towards war.  Consternation on both sides: the German army worried that this would be a war they could not win; British politicians also, although they were divided in their approach. Should they appease Hitler or stand behind Czechoslovakia over the issue of the Sudetenland?    Enter Ridpath’s two protagonists.  For the British, Conrad de Lancey, once a pacifist, but now a disillusioned anti-fascist fighter in the Spanish Civil War.  After moving to Berlin, an innocent meeting with his Russian spy cousin, marks his card and he falls into the hands of the Gestapo.  He is saved by Theo, a childhood friend, the honourable Prussian officer and member of the Abwehr, the German secret service over which the Gestapo holds no sway, the organisation planning a coup in order to prevent Hitler destroying their country.  Theo tries to enlist Conrad to glean information about British intentions, as do the British to find out what the Germans are planning.  Conrad, however, wants none of it.  He is still trying to come to terms with the betrayal of his politcal ideals in Spain, the more personal betrayal of his wife, and the death of his cousin in Gestapo hands.  But he cannot fail to see the injustices and barbarity of Nazi society, particularly when he becomes romantically involved with a Jewess.

“I wanted to explore what makes a man turn traitor”, said Ridpath during the Bloody Scotland event.  My issue is that the traitor I identify isn’t one of the protagonists.  Both Theo and Conrad fight against the evil of Nazism, but that is a favourable judgment enabled through the passage of time.  In 1938 though, Theo was acting against the established government and Conrad on behalf of a foreign power ….

If the character studies of both men are compelling, so too is that of Klaus Schalke, the Gestapo antagonist.  He provides a study on the corrupting and brutalising effect of absolute power. A reluctant Nazi at first, he is sucked in ever deeper once recruited by Heydrich for his information gathering skills.  That position gives him power to be implacable, particularly when dealing with personal grudges.

Traitor’s Gate is based on historical fact. The afterword tells plans in place to overthrow Hitler in September 1938 and Chamberlain knew that the coup would be triggered if Britain held firm on the question of the Sudetenland.  Let’s hope he (Chamberlain) makes the right decision, says one of the characters. The rest, they say, is history, and Ridpath’s version of events leaves us in no doubt as to the true cost of that infamous peace in our lifetime. The fantastic thing is that the suspense is in no way jeopardised by our knowledge of historical outcomes.  I was shaking (literally) as I read the last few chapters.  So, yes, I will read the sequel, but I’ll need to take a breather first.

imageLast, but by no means least, you may recognise the author sitting to the right of Craig Sisterton.  Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel, His Bloody Project, has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  However, it was his debut, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau that was the prime interest here.  The novel had been sitting in my TBR since last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival where it came to my attention as I just finished talking to Georges Simenon’s son.  (I meet lots of interesting people in Charlotte Square.)   Enter a tall Scot, who gave a copy of said book to John Simenon.  I’d like you to have a copy of this novel that I wrote in homage to your father, he said.  Oh, thought I, I’ll  have to get me a copy of that …..

12 months later I read it.  The focus at Bloody Scotland was the location, a small French town,  Saint-Louis, in general and the Restaurant de la Cloche in particular.  Manfred Baumann dines here every single day.  The menu changes daily, in a weekly cycle.  So each Monday Manfred eats the same thing, each Tuesday too.  In fact, he is OCD about his routine.  He does not want to raise people’s suspicions. What is there to be suspicious of?  Oh yes, there is a very dark secret in Manfred’s past, which influences his behaviour and may have a bearing on the disappearance of the waitress, Adèle.

Manfred is an oddfish, an outsider, tolerated, never really accepted and, therefore, prime suspect.  He compounds his problems by lying to the investigating inspector, Gorski, and the reader knows he’s lying.  The seeds of doubt and his downfall are sown ….

Gorski has his own problems, mainly his harridan wife, who realises she has married beneath herself.  No Madame Maigret, she, although Gorski’s style is akin to that of Inspector Maigret.  He does not rush his investigation.  He’s happy to wait for his prey to confess, even when he has caught him in the lie.  Nor will he give up on his first case.  He knows the wrong man was jailed for that.

Macrae Burnet’s style is clear and downstated au Simenon, if you will.  (Not  quite as plain though.) The chauvinism of the early 1980’s won’t always please the politically correct of the 20-teens, but so what?  There has also been criticism that the female characters aren’t well-rounded.  Give me a break – Simenon often didn’t write well-rounded female character studies either. I did enjoy the book and the sometimes subtle nods to Simenon (riffs from The Man Who Watched Trains go by, for instance),  but I did feel that the dénouement regarding Manfred was hurried.  Also I was a bit puzzled by the post-modern conceit that the novel is a translation of a novel by Raymond Brunet with the requirement for an afterword by the translator Graeme Macrae Burnet. Likely that puzzlement will disappear on publication of Macrae Burnet’s Brunet’s next novel, which will return us to Saint-Louis. Looking forward to it.

Bloody Scotland, the crime writing festival, is now 5 years old.  This year saw some changes – not all of which worked well. I’m sure the organisers are aware of the issues but let me get this off my chest and then we’ll move onto to the good, even great things.

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Albert Halls

The big events took place, as ever in the Albert Halls in Stirling,  but smaller events moved to a new location, The Golden Lion.  In my opinion the new venue was too small.  There was no room for queuing, with selling and signing tables squeezed into tight little corners. It was hot, stuffy and at times claustrophobic. I bought nothing. I joined a signing queue only once, and there were problems due to 3 authors at one table signing at different paces.  (Not normally an issue when separate queues can be formed but it caused a back-up and a bit of a kerfuffle when there was only space for one queue.) Finally, and crucial to the whole experience, there was nowhere to relax, enjoy a coffee and read between events. (The bar was mobbed, the foyer was packed with the aforementioned queues and the restaurant reserved for those wanting meals.) In conclusion, location 4/10.

The programme, however, was a wide-ranging 8/10. Over the course of the weekend I attended events covering classic crime (Josephine Tey), Victorian Gothic (E S Thompson and Oscar de Muriel), spy fiction (Charles Cumming, Alan Judd), psychological thrillers (Rachel Abbot and Melanie Raabe),  detective fiction set abroad (Graeme Macrae Burnet – France, Michael Ridpath – Iceland, and Craig Russell – Germany) and crime verging on horror (Neil MacKay and Alexandra Sokoloff). The festival ended on home territory with Ian Rankin and Quentin Jardine, who talked of the difficulties of finding new places in Edinburgh to send their experienced detectives.  Let’s just say that Quartermile can expect a (fictional) crime wave in the near future!

The biggest round of applause and a 10/10 is reserved not for Christopher Brookmyre who won the inaugural William McIlvanney Prize on Friday night, nor for the English Crime Writers who won the traditional England vs Scotland football match 7-1 on Saturday afternoon (I couldn’t let that pass unremarked – I’ve been there when winning boots were on Scottish feet), but for the new main sponsors of the festival, Bookdonors.  A not for profit organisation, whose mission it is to save books from ending up in landfill.  Over the course of the weekend, they gave away 10,000 (!) crime fiction books.  There was a gift on every chair at every event.  This led to a version of musical chairs as the audience walked up and down rows picking their seats based on the book that was on it.  Although there was no problem if you didn’t like the book on your chair.  You could always visit the stall in the Albert Halls, where there were crates and crates of books on offer, and swap one book for another. By Sunday afternoon, however, you could simply help yourself to as many books as you wanted!  Now that’s what I call booty-ful.

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I think tomorrow is the  official end date of #20booksofsummer.  And so a reckoning is due.  I posted the original list of 35 potential reads on 1.07.  This is how it looks now.  (Highlighted titles have been read, if not reviewed.  I’ll try and catch up with myself by end September.)

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I’m quite pleased with this.  Considering I didn’t start until a good two weeks’ after the official start date, I’m not too far short of the 20 book target, and I only inserted 4 onto the original list.

But now it is time to move on and start my next reading project.  I am delighted to say that I will be attending the Frankfurt Book Fair at the end of October.  This year the focus is very much on Dutch and Flemish literature with the Low Countries being Guests of Honour.  What an ideal opportunity to catch up on some of those Dutch And Flemish novels, which are vying for my attention in the TBR.

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I’m hoping to read at least 6 of these (and not necessarily the shortest) before the Book Fair.  If you’ve got some of these in your TBR, perhaps we can readalong?

I’ve been spending a lot of time on youtube recently enjoying book haul videos.  Contemplated doing it myself until I saw the pilot.  It’s not going to happen without pre-requisite plastic surgery and that’s never going to happen.

Instead, I shall share my annual Edinburgh splurge here, and given that it was financed by my final pay cheque, this may be the last splurge ever (unless I finance another by eating bread and jam for a month or two.). This post will also prove how irresistible the festival  bookshop in Charlotte Square is to me.  Although I am not alone in that. 62,000 full-price sales in 17 days is phenomenal book-selling,  isn’t it?  Publishers must love #edbookfest as much as I do.  Anyway, here is my small contribution to the book-buying frenzy.

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The #edbookfest dozen

From left to right:

James Robertson: To Be Continued *
Each year  I pick out the best looking cover in the shop and acquire the book.   Oh yes, judging a book by its cover has benefits.  I’ve discovered some great reads this way.  Usually I add to my gold-gilted collection rather like Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers which I purchased about three years ago.  This year, however, I found quirky to be the most attractive look.  Couldn’t work it out … Until I got home and looked at my new party dress.

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Setting the trend in matching accessories

I’m not worried about not enjoying the novel.  I’ve read plenty from James Robertson before.  This will be good.

A Country Road, A Tree – Jo Baker / Dat Trickster Sun: Poems – Christine De Luca  / The Lamentations – Mark Lawson / The Woman Next Door – Yemande Omatose * 

Four novels, the acquisition of which were directly fuelled  by the authors during their events. Fellow Lancastrian Baker’s second novel takes on the years Samuel Beckett spent in Paris; the years that, according to Baker, transformed him from a talent to a literary giant.     Christine de Luca is the current Edinburgh Makar and this pamphlet of poems in English and Shetlandic joins my collection of the Makars’ poetry.  The Lamentations deals with the devastation of historic sexual abuse allegations, tapping directly into contemporary issues and my unease with how we, as a society, are dealing with this. My interest in Omatose’s novel was spiked when I realised that the neighbour from hell  wasn’t a Hyacinth Bucket figure, but that her novel, dealing with post-apartheid racial issues in South Africa has much more depth to it than that.

How to Look For A Lost Dog – Ann M Martin
Ah, the dangers of spending a sunny afternoon on the Charlotte Square lawn in bookish chat with  other festivallers.  Anne from Dublin, suitcase in tow, had just arrived, but had already succumbed to the children’s bookshop.  Of course, I asked her what she’d bought, and, following the conversation, I had to get a copy of this book for myself.

Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story – Bernadette Murphy *
Ah, the dangers of standing in a queue waiting for Susan Fletcher to sign my copy of Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew and striking up a conversation with her publisher, which turned to this book.  Given that my house is full of Van Gogh prints (not Pre-Raphaelites, surprisingly) of course I sought a review copy.

Walking with James Hogg – Bruce Gilkinson / How to travel without seeing – Andres Neuman
I’m going to be taking some long trips in the next 12 months (and blogging may be sporadic, depending on wifi access).  I’m contemplating writing about these travels, but have no idea how to go about it.  Hence my attendance at these events and the addition of these travelogues to my shelves.

The Nature of Autumn – Jim Crumley
Because autumn is my favourite season, and watching the leaves on the trees in Charlotte Square change colour is  one of the great pleasures of the book festival.  Plus this was the runner up in my favourite cover competition and I had a discount voucher to trade.

Dragon Games – Jan-Philippe Sender / Dream Story – Arthur Schnitzler
Because coming back from the Edinburgh International Book Festival without some new German literature simply will not do.  German Literature was poorly represented this year. (Mind, I can’t think off-hand of any big UK-published releases this year.) Anyway,  I read and enjoyed the first in Sendker’s Dragon Rising Trilogy last year and, although I couldn’t attend his event this time, I’m looking forward to reading this.  As for Schnitzler in the new coloured Penguin classics format, how could I resist?

So there we have it.  12 acquisitions during the first 10 days of the festival.  (Books marked with an asterisk are review copies, kindly sent by the publishers.) Just think what might have happened had I been able to attend for the full 17 days. (Which is the plan for next year. Now where is the bread and jam?)

imageTranslated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is a psychologist and her deep insight into human nature infuses every page of her second novel to be translated into English.  At her recent Edinburgh Book Festival event she made the following points:

a) We each have more than one personality.  Our lives do not follow a single arc.
b) We spend a lot of time hiding our true nature.   We make ourselves attractive so that  others do not see the real person beneath.
c) We often choose not to see what is right in front of us.

The drama involving Eitan, his wife, and an Ethiopian illegal immigrant, Sirkit is designed to show how this plays out in life.

Eitan Green is a neurosurgeon.  He lives with his wife, Liat, and his two young sons in Beersheba.  They are happy despite his posting to a dusty, southern outback being a kind of demotion, a punishment for causing waves in his previous post in Jerusalem.  Yet Eitan’s life and all his assumptions about himself are changed in an instant.

He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man.

What is Eitan going to do?  The doctor in him forces him out of the car.  The doctor in him ascertains that the man, an illegal Ethiopian immigrant, is beyond help.  The man in him realises that reporting the accident could lead to the loss of his family and career.  Also that there are no witnesses.  So, surprising the honest Eitan in himself (see a) above), he drives off.

The following day, with Eitan feeling no guilt, there is a knock at the door.

The woman at the door was tall, thin and very beautiful, but Eitan didn’t notice any of those details.  Two others captured his full attention: she was Eritrean and she was holding his wallet in her hand.

And it is at that moment that Eitan’s universe tilts on its axis because the woman, Sirkit, holds more than the wallet, which Eitan dropped when examining the dying man.  She holds, for the first time in her life,  absolute power.  The lion, the predator within her, has been awoken and she is on the prowl. What does she want?  Not money.  She wants Eitan to establish an illegal field hospital for the multitude of sick Eritrean immigrants and for him to treat them, for free, whenever he is not working at the hospital.  However, don’t believe that Sirkit is motivated by altruism.  It takes a while for her motives to be revealed.  Bear in mind point b) above.

Which leaves us with point c) and Liat, Eitan’s wife, is the prime example of this.  She is a detective and ironically, tasked with finding the hit and run driver.  While the rest of the force is happy to sweep it under the carpet (it’s just another illegal immigrant), Liat is not. Yet when faced with Eitan’s ever-increasing absences, his deteriorating appearance, and the breakdown in their up-till-now model communications, she is not prepared to ask the questions that need asking – at least not until the point of almost no return.

The foregoing basically scratches the surface of the psychological drama at the heart of Waking Lions.  The relationship between Sirkit and Eitan, blackmailer and blackmailee,  isn’t confined to hatred.  Gradually the muscles of hatred grow tired said Ayelet Gunden-Goshar.  Which leads to more complications for Eitan. His involvement  makes him aware of the Etritreans and their plight for the first time.  He begins to feel empathy for them, which  means he does not walk away when circumstances lead to the balance of power shifting between Sirkit and himself.

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Ayelet Gunden-Goshar 20.08.2016

At times the relationship between Sirkit and Eitan feels like a deadly embrace. There needs to be a catalyst to break it.  And that is provided by the fact that Eitan not only killed an illegal immigrant but also a drug-mule.  Not only does this provide the acceleration to the thrillery climax, it gives Gunden-Goshar opportunity to investigate the stratified nature of contemporary society in Israel.  At the bottom the illegal, and for the most part invisible Etritreans, who find they have not walked to a promised land.  Above them – just – the Bedouins, reduced to making a living by providing tourist shows.  And then the Jews:  the Arab Jews who are discriminated agrainst by the European Jews.

Such an informative and surprising novel with lots of content in its 409 pages.  I did feel a little drag around the half-way point, but, I suppose this reflects the situation Eitan was in at this point – there was no light at the end of the tunnel for him.  It may also have been the efffect of reading the novel in snatches, as I travelled back and forth to Edinburgh.  Regardless I’m glad I pushed on through.  I was well rewarded for my efforts.