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Autumn – Ali Smith

“Ali Smith needs a second chance?”, cried a bemused fan when, following her event in Edinburgh, I said that I was prepared to give Autumn a go.

You see, if I don’t like the first book I read of a given author, then I take a lot of persuading to pick up a second.   I was short and scathing about The Accidental, and no amount of fulsome praise, Booker shortlistings and other literary awards bestowed in the intervening 11 years has persuaded me to return to Ali Smith.  But her performance at Edinburgh did.  As those you have seen her live will know,  she was sparkling, all synapses firing with her intelligence and wit,  and, this is where the read of Autumn became a done deal, she read the beginning of Winter.  She hadn’t yet handed in the manuscript; there was still 3 weeks to her deadline, but as she was sure that this opening section was not going to change during the final edit, we were treated to a sneak preview of a prolonged riff on A Christmas Carol; angry and passionate, with wow factor in spades.   And because I absolutely now have to read Winter, Autumn had to be read first.

IMG_0204I didn’t love it, and in places it irritated me just as The Accidental had. Smith’s stylistic quirks obviously don’t gel with me.  I’ve come a long way since reading The Accidental, and now enjoy intertextuality as much as anyone.  Autumn is replete with it.  It is a celebration of Dickens and Shakespeare and the pop art of Pauline Boty.  2 of the 3 are whom not exactly my cup of tea (Dickens and Boty), but even so I enjoyed Smith’s homage.  However, the episodic narrative, chopping and changing, back and forth throughout time without any obvious connections, grated on me so much that one third of the way through, I thought we were heading to a DNF.  And then I read this:

Collage is an institute of education, where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative, and because of these skills everything you think you know gets made into something new and strange.

It’s the first passage I marked and I believe it is the key to the structure of Autumn.  There are other clues, as in Boty’s pop art collages, for that is what Smith is doing here.  Throwing away the rule book with regards to narrative size and space and time  – my Scottish literary inheritance allows me to do anything I want in my books, she said at Edinburgh. In the context of Daniel Gluck, the main protagonist, who is lying in a coma, at the beginning of the novel, this makes sense.  As memories of his life replay in his mind, they’re not going to do so in chronological sequence.  They’re going to form a collage. And once I got that idea in my mind (rightly or wrongly), I began to enjoy the book.

At the heart of the novel is a the story of a friendship between Daniel,  an old man, and Elizabeth Demand, child of a single mother, who uses her neighbour as a baby-sitter when it suits.  But the mother doesn’t entirely approve of Daniel; she mistakenly thinks he’s an “old queer”, but it’s a case of needs must.  He is an educated man, a lover of art and music, and much of the novel consists of conversations between himself and Elisabeth which expand her mind and take her outwith her mother’s limitations.  The friendship between the two endures, despite Elizabeth going off to,do what all young people do, live her own life, but Daniel’s influence is never far away,.  But when he, now a very old man, is lying in a coma (or is he really just sleeping?) Elisabeth returns to his bedside and reads to him and relates tales from their common past.

Autumn is a melancholy novel about the fleeting nature of life, but also about the divisions we create by not accepting people as they are, or imposing artificial boundaries, or, in the case of politicians, telling lies. Which brings us to the B-word. Marketed as the first post-Brexit novel, published a matter of months after last June’s referendum, Smith uses the infamous Profumo scandal of the 1960’s to draw comparisons with the current state of the nation.  The novel was edited following the vote with contemporaneous passages inserted, reflecting the clear dismay of her characters at the outcome.  I don’t want to stray into political argument here, but for all the nuance in the rest of the novel, there’s a complete lack in the portrayal of Brexiteers. They’re all thuggish and racist. I’m not saying these people don’t exist but there are Brexiteers from a different mould with whom it is possible to have dialogue (something Smith calls for often in the novel.)  They are missing from these pages.  Though that is perhaps the point. No dialogue was possible in the days after the referendum  The country was completely divided.  The arguments were even fiercer than before the vote.  It will be interesting to see how she interprets the current aftermath in the forthcoming novel.

To sum up.  Autumn is an issues novel with which I had some issues.  However, its balance ended in the black, thanks to the credits banked by those appreciative descriptions of trees and leaves.  I’m with Smith on the glories of our arboreal cohabitants.  (Cf veritable gushing in this interview.) And that’s more than enough to ensure that I’ll be heading towards Winter as soon as I get my hands on a copy.

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This month’s 6 Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate, begins with a book club read from years ago, of which I remember not a word! I read a synopsis. Still nothing.   However, it appears that the novel, which contains many Mexican recipes, is also an ode to the love of food.  In that case …

… there’s nothing I love more than a German cake, but I always found that baking a German recipe in Scotland never truly worked. Classic German Baking has modified the recipes to American measures and ingredients, and they work perfectly, even on the other side of the Pond.  The crustless baked cheese cake is to die for ….

as is Kafka’s Lemon Drizzle Cake, albeit for completely different reasons!  It is presented in Tom Gauld’s Baking with Kafka.   So too is a Wolf Hall Activity Fun Book, which I would buy in a heartbeat, if ever one were to be produced.

Which brings me to Wolf Hall, surely the finest historical novel and Booker Winner ever (regardless of what happens next Tuesday).  As we know, it concerns Thomas Cromwell and his aiding and abetting, along with the Seymours, of  Henry VIII’s conquest of Anne Boleyn. Predators all, and the Seymour family seat, Wulfhall in Wiltshire,  could not have been more aptly named.

While on the subject of predatory buildings, there’s one in Daniel Kehlmann’s latest novella, You Should Have Left. I won’t say too much here, as I will be reviewing during German Literature Month.  I will say though that one protagonist has to make the ultimate sacrifice to enable others to escape.

Sydney Carton also did a far, far better thing than he had ever done before in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. The setting of that novel, during the French Revolution, provides the link to the final book in this month’s chain.

Fittingly, for it is the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and that is the subject of China Miéville’s latest and my current read, simply entitled October.

There are 16 titles on the longlist for the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, 3 of which are translated from German.  A shortlist is to be announced imminently, and the German titles may not make it, but, nevertheless as November is German Literature Month, we can and shall celebrate them regardless.

EDIT: The shortlist has just been announced and 2 of the 3 German titles are on it!

Thanks to the generosity of the publishers, Comma Press and Portobello Books, I have one copy of each title to giveaway.  Despite all having connections to the animal kingdom in their titles, their content is very different!

 

 

 

Swallow Summer – Larissa Boehning (Translated by Lyn Marven) (Shortlisted)

For short story lovers.

Two music producers pack up their studio – along with their dreams of ever making it in the industry – after too many bands fail to pay their bills…

A woman takes up an invitation to visit an ex-lover in Arizona, only to find his apartment is no bigger than a motel room…

A former drama student runs into an old classmate from ten years before, hardly recognising the timid creature he’s become…

Each character in Larissa Boehning’s debut collection experiences a moment where they’re forced to confront how differently things turned out, how quickly ambitions were shelved, or how easily people change. Former colleagues meet up to reminisce about the failed agency they used to work for; brothers-in-law find themselves co-habiting long after the one person they had in common passed away; fellow performers watch as their careers slowly drift in opposite directions. Boehning’s stories offer a rich store of metaphors for this abandonment: the downed tools of a deserted East German factory, lying exactly where they were dropped the day Communism fell; the old, collected cameras of a late father that seem to stare, wide-eyed, at the world he left behind. And yet, underpinning this abandonment, there is also great resilience. Like the cat spotted by a demolition worker in the penultimate story that sits, unflinching, as its home is bulldozed around it, certain spirits abide.

 

The Fox Was Ever The Hunter – Herta Müller (Translated by Phillip Boehm)

Romania, the last months of the dictator’s regime. Adina is a young schoolteacher. Paul is a musician. Clara, Adina’s friend, works in a wire factory. Pavel is Clara’s lover. But one of them works for the secret police and is reporting on the group.

One day Adina returns home to discover that her fox fur rug has had its tail cut off. On another day, a hindleg. Then a foreleg. The mutilation is a sign that she is being tracked – the fox was ever the hunter.

Images of photographic precision combine to form a kaleidoscope of reflections, deflections and deceit. Adina and her friends struggle to keep living in a world permeated with fear, where even the eyes of a cat seem complicit with the watchful eye of the state, and where it’s hard to tell the victim apart from the perpetrator.

 

Memoirs of A Polar Bear – Yoko Tawada (Translated by Susan Bernofsky) (Shortlisted)

Someone tickled me behind my ears, under my arms. I curled up, became a full moon, and rolled on the floor. I may also have emitted a few hoarse shrieks. Then I lifted my rump to the sky and tucked my head beneath my belly: Now I was a sickle moon, still too young to imagine any danger. Innocent, I opened my anus to the cosmos and felt it in my bowels.

A bear, born and raised in captivity, is devastated by the loss of his keeper; another finds herself performing in the circus; a third sits down one day and pens a memoir which becomes an international sensation, and causes her to flee her home.

Through the stories of these three bears, Tawada reflects on our own humanity, the ways in which we belong to one another and the ways in which we are formed. Delicate and surreal, Memoirs of a Polar Bear takes the reader into foreign bodies and foreign climes, and immerses us in what the New Yorker has called ‘Yoko Tawada’s magnificent strangeness’.

 


I intend reading and reviewing all three during November.  My review of Memoirs of A Polar Bear will appear on 15.11.2017 as it is an official German Literature Month Readalong.  Review dates for the others are to be determined, but most likely to be during the second half of the month.

To enter tne giveaway, let me know which title you would like to win.  (It could be all three, but potential winnings are restricted to one per entrant.) Entry to the competition comes with a commitment to read and discuss the book during German Literature Month.  (Either through review on your own blog, a book review site or in comments on my review.)

This is an international giveaway and winners will be notified on Sunday 15.10.2017.

IMG_0160What attracted Tracy Chevalier to writing a modern day Othello for The Borough Press?  “It’s the quintessential story of an outsider”, she said.  “And I’m an outsider.  I still sound like this (referring to her American accent) after 30 years,” she quipped. (See footnote.)

Was she constrained by the thought of following in Shakespeare’s footsteps?  “Not at all.  I had a setting I know well and I was liberated from all the historical research!”.

By choosing to bring Othello into a 1970’s Washington school playground, Chevalier not only knows the setting, she has lived it. There are details in this book straight from her childhood, even if the racial element is inverted.  Chevalier was a minority white kid in a mostly black neighbourhood.  She knows how her Othello, or Osei Kokote, the son of a Ghanian diplomat feels.

And she knows how modern day 6th graders behave.  I’ll be honest – all these pre-adolescent relationships between boys and girls felt a bit grown up to me.  But Chevalier says these “couplings” – even if they only last for one hour – are the norm in her son’s school.  The kids are trying it out.

So back to Othello – his  passionate relationship with the lovely Desdemona,  the deadly nature of his unjust jealousy fired by Iago’s betrayal. It’s a true Shakespearian tragedy, and it ends with bodies strewn all over the stage.  “I couldn’t follow Shakespeare there.  In a theatre the audience is prepared to suspend disbelief.  But my novel is in a playground.  I’ve made the ending fit the scenario.   Even so I’ve littered my last act with metaphorical dead bodies.”  said Chevalier.

Don’t let that fool you.  The ending may be an emotional softening but it remains devastating.  Chevalier’s retelling is set over the course of one day.  Perhaps she sacrifices an element of realism in doing this?  Would things escalate so quickly, even in a 1970’s playground, where the supervising teachers are as rascist as the pre-adolescent Iago? Maybe not, but it ensures that the pace never slackens. Chevalier also incorporates the development of Othello’s and Desdemona’s relationship – something Shakespeare never did. Was it really the great love we assume? Chevalier certainly wasn’t convinced. Nor is she happy with the relative silence of the women in Shakespeare’s play.  “I’ve kept to his five acts”, she said.  “I’ve just given more airplay to the girls.”

She does this by following the action over the shoulders of her four main characters:  Osei and the golden-haired Dee (Othello amd Desdemona); Ian and Millie (Iago and Bianca). This allows her to examine the issue of racism from multiple perspectives, including the black boy’s point-of-view.  The decision to keep the narrative third-person avoids any accusation of cultural appropriation. (See footnote 2.)

The result is, as I have already said, a fast-paced and intense read, and, for me, the most enjoyable Hogarth Shakespeare retelling to date.   Once I suspended my disbelief.  6th grade = 11 years old for goodness sake.  Mind you, it is a long time since I was in the 6th grade playground.  What do I know?


Footnote 1: Edinburgh Book Festival 20.08.2017

Footnote 2: Am I alone in feeling distressed at the fact that Chevalier even had to consider this? What happened to artistic license?

There’s an industry when it comes to writing about Kafka.  His works are analysed and reinterpreted again and again.  But has anyone written about baking with Kafka?  Not that I know of.  Not even Tom Gauld.  But he has drawn a cartoon.

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Baking with Kafka is a collection of cartoons, mostly commissioned by the Guardian, the New Yorker or the New York Times.  The vast majority have a literary theme with others referring to art, film and world of the critic. As such the cartoons are current, well-informed and extremely witty.  There are a few pointed barbs scattered in the mix, but these seemed reserved (quite rightly) for the world of politics.

Gauld projects into the bookish future with advice such as how to get published in a skeleton apocalypse and a demonstration of the behaviour of a rogue bibliophile in 2500 AD.  Staying firmly in the now, however, whether you are a reader, a writer, a translator, or a critic, Gauld captures your pecadilloes in a way that you will recognise and make you smile.

On second thoughts, maybe translators won’t smile.

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Consisting of 150 cartoons, this is a book for devouring in one sitting, and then dipping in and out of whenever in need of a quick pick-me-up.  I’ve also spent quite a while trying to determine my three favourites. It was an impossible task.  Instead I will leave you with three cartoons that tickled my funny bone all over again whilst writing this review.

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September Wrap-Up

It’s been a busy month – just not on the blog or in reading terms, comparatively speaking.  I’ve been travelling.  Actually I was only at home for seven days in September!  So, the fact that four books were read and five blog posts (excluding the August Wrap-Up) published should be regarded as a valiant effort!

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Books Read September 2017

The two German translations at the bottom of the read-in-September pile  (Kruso, This House is Mine) provide clues as to where I’ve been spending my time. Reviews will appear during German Literature Month in November.

Reviews
Spring Garden – Tomoka Shibasaki
Excavating Kafka – James Hawes  (Book of the Month – let not the paucity of competition fool you.  This is an astounding read!)

Features
6 Degrees of Separation – From Wild Swans to Wives and Stunners
Announcing German Literature Month VII
A Literary Tour of Schleswig-Holstein: Lübeck amd The Buddenbrooks House

2017 Reading Statistics
YTD 77 Read, 8 Audio Books, 8 DNF
August 2017 4 Read

IMG_0146Earlier this year, I read James Hawes’s The Shortest History of Germany – it was illuminating to say the least (and I thought I knew a thing or two about German history). So I decided to take the book he published in 2008 with me on a recent trip to Prague.  What was he going to teach me about the city’s most famous inhabitant?

To summarise in a sentence: Everything I ever thought I knew about Kafka is a myth!  Really? Yes, really.

The “facts”  – the accepted truths – are listed by Hawes on pages 6 and 7.

  • Kafka’s will ordered that all his works should be destroyed.
  • Kafka was virtually unknown in his lifetime, partly because he was shy about publishing.
  • Kafka was crushed by a dead-end bureaucratic job.
  • Kafka was crippled for years by the TB that he knew must inevitably kill him.
  • Kafka was incredibly honest about his feelings with the women in his life – too honest.
  • Kafka was imprisoned, as a German-speaking Jew in Prague, in a double ghetto: a minority-within-a-minority amid an absurd and collapsing operatta-like empire.
  • Kafka’s works are based on his experiences as a Jew.
  • Kafka’s works uncannily predict Auschwitz.
  • Kafka’s works were burned by the Nazis. 

The remainder of his book is spent debunking, each and every point, one by one.  Convincingly and yet the K-myth, as Hawes calls it, is still the one perpetuated by the industry. The enigma must be good for business.

Well I was in the right place to check things out. (No pun intended.)  I marched myself off to the Franz Kafka Museum.  What are they saying?

Let’s look at myth point 3: Kafka was terrified of his brutal father.  This is backed up by the museum, as the first exhibit introduces us to the “shadow of Hermann Kafka … the huge, oppressive figure which the writer chose as a recurrent motif in his inner life”. The museum presents the Letter to My Father as “a biographical and literary document of the first order” though I suppose there’s sufficient room for manoeuvre in its evaluation of the work as “an over-the-top diatribe” to suggest that, as Hawes argues, the relationship between son and father in the Letter to My Father is not to be mistaken for that between the real-life counterparts.

Myth point 2:  Kafka was virtually unknown in his lifetime. There’s plenty of evidence in the museum to show that Kafka was well-known in immediate circles, but interestingly not a scooby about his winning the Fontane Prize for Literature in 1912!   I wasn’t aware of that until Hawes brought it to my attention.

Myth Point 1: That legendary will exists and the literary world will be forever grateful for Max Brod’s act of disobedience.  Certainly that is how this is presented in the Franz Kafka Museum.  How can Hawes argue against this?  That Kafka was using reverse psychology which Brod, due to the closeness of their relationship, would have understood all too well.

I’m inclined to believe Hawes because there is just so much in these fascinating pages that brings a completely new image of Kafka, the man, to life.  “A clubber with a penchant for porn” as James Walton aptly phrased it in The Telegraph. (And I’ll leave you to wonder about the revelations in that particular chapter.)

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Once read, never forgotten

Enough about the man, what about his literature?  Here’s another myth: Kafka’s style is mysterious and opaque.  I certainly found that to be true at university and remember hurling (literally) “The Castle” into the rubbish bin!  Yet the section that Hawes devotes to analysis of Kafka’s works – including that beetle story – as the depiction of the “abiding psychological tension of our modern world” makes tham seem not only interesting, but perhaps even approachable. I’m not going to use the word enjoyable,  because I don’t to want chance my arm, but I do find myself contemplating what would have been uncontemplatable a couple of months before.  A reread of Kafka’s novels.  My stomach clenches at the thought, perhaps something shorter.  Hawes suggests there is no finer place to begin than with “The Judgement”, and, as I trust him, so I shall.