In addition to its BTBA longlisting, this book becomes the first nominee for Lizzy’s most beautifully designed book of the year. The picture you see on the left is misleading. The dust jacket is semi-opaque allowing the photographic image on the book cover to come through. Peeling it back reveals this.
The beauty of a book seduces me before I even start. When I get to page 5 and read of Starnberg (30 minutes on the S6 from the centre of Munich), page 9 of sunny afternoons drinking beer in the English Gardens and then am pitched by page 20 into the life of a student in one of the bungalows in the Olympic Village (just as I did during the most fondly remembered year of my life), I tell you I am head over heels in love with the book …. full of nostalgia for my youth and the sunshine and the beer … and probably not paying much attention to the literary merits of the novel at all. But I’m back there – it would appear that Alex’s student life in the late 90’s wasn’t much different from that in the academic year 1979-1980 – even down to the mold on the walls of those bungalows (more on that later).
Fortunately for the review the protagonist Alex graduates and leaves the Olympic Village. Whereas Lizzy left Munich to return to finish her degree in London, Alex stayed (lucky so-and-so, married Sonia, established an architectural design company and settled down to a life of serial adultery. Because he couldn’t get Ivona out of his head. An obsession which baffles him. Where Sonia is beautiful, Ivona is plain. Where Sonia comes from a wealthy family, Ivona is an illegal immigrant. Where Sonia is articulate, Ivona is taciturn. Where Sonia is cool, Ivona is passionately, submissively, slaveishly in love with Alex. Although he leaves her many times, he returns whenever there’s any trouble in his life. Her love must be the drug. (Apologies for the gratuitous 80s reference, but I did see Roxy Music in concert at the Olympiahalle in 1980 ….)
Except Alex never returns to Ivona honestly, with any intention of staying. He uses her. So he not a sympathtic character at all. Neither for that matter is his wife Sonia – she always remains distant and far too cool for me. As for Ivona – do I believe that any woman would abase herself so consistently over so many years? I’d like to think not but I’m not convinced that this doesn’t happen.
So now we’ve established that I have no sympathy with any of the 3 main protagonists and yet I kept reading. Alex weaves such a tangled web simply because he never grows up. You can see this in his attitude to his profession. He designs buildings he has no intentions of constructing. His wife, however, is much more engaged and practical. Her buildings become concrete. The differences between them are obvious from the start and it’s a puzzle as to why the two of them got together in the first place. Certainly these two architects neglect to lay proper foundations in their marriage and allow the mold in that Olympic village bungalow, where their relationship began, to thrive …
A man torn between two women, but two women who in different ways are incompatible to him. It is a story fascinatingly told. When I put the book down, I wanted to rush back to its pages. Munich was obviously a key attraction and I enjoyed the contrast between it and Marseilles (the city which fascinates Sonia), together with the abundance of architectural metaphor (explained magnificently here.) The story is told matter-of-factly from Alex’s point-of-view with an absence of moral judgment. It is a depiction of the human condition and the unholy mess we can make when we drift along, never considering the consequences of our actions. So absorbed was I that I never even noticed the lack of parenthesis around the speech or the many changes of speaker within the same paragraph. The language simply flows beautifully …
… apart from the odd Americanism (see footnote) which jolted me from my reveries. I assume the translation was originally commissioned by the American publisher, Other Press, and that Granta do not anglicise narrative as a matter of policy. So it would be unreasonable to penalise the translation for this. Ironically though, the Americanisms were the only reminder that I was reading a translated text!
Hats off, then, to Michael Hofmann for a superb job.
I’ll be most disappointed if this novel doesn’t make the BTBA shortlist. (EDIT 11.04.12 I am indeed most disappointed.)
Footnote: row house = terraced house, myoma = fibroid and pajamas is spelt with a y!