iWaterstone's window display
Waterstones Princes Street

With Waterstones getting on the act, what is a girl to do, other than join in. OK, we’ve already done it once this festival, but let’s circumnavigate the globe again.

Summary of impact on my TBR : 6 books read, 6 books purchased, 1 book moved to the immediate TBR.

Jellyfish – Just for Janice

This time we start in Scotland with one of my completist authors, Janice Galloway.  It would seem as though Baillie Gifford have decorated the main festival tent entirely in honour of her recent short story collection, Jellyfish, not the cheeriest of reads, but amazing as always.  As far as Galloway is concerned, a jellyfish is the most vulnerable of creatures.  Out of water it cannot function.  Stranded on a beach, it can wait only for the waves to reach it, hopefully before those boys with sticks.  In the collection, this vulnerability transfers to human beings in a variety of situations – the child in the buggy being pushed over the kerb into traffic, women in various states of mental breakdown, a man, who is angry – really, really, angry at the woman who has just left him.  Burning Love is my favourite story in this collection, and Galloway read from it in character.  I wish there’d had been time for her to read it to the end – I would have loved to have experienced the chill when the 600 strong audience realised just how blazing he is.

Al Senter (standing) and Howard Jacobson
Al Senter (standing) and Howard Jacobson

Moving south to England and Howard Jacobson was the surprise of the festival for me.  His work has never really appealed but next year, he is publishing My Name is Shylock.  Given my new found fascination wih The Merchant of Venice, this book is well and truly on my radar.   I thought I would just suss out the author.  Wit, humour, warmth and a certain down-to-earthness. Good repartee with the chair, Al Senter.  I was charmed.  I mean how can a girl resist lines like “I set my first novel in Wolverhampton polytechnic.  You can’t get more dystopic than that.” Or “Political correctness?  That’s just papering over the cracks.” Or “I have to be upset when I write”. Or .. I’ll stop there – more to follow when I’ve read J his most recent 2014 Booker-shortlisted novel, a signed-copy of which found its way into my book bag.

Why that one in particular?  It’s set in a world where people have lost their memories … As is Anna Smaill’s 2015 Booker longlisted The Chimes, the book I was reading at the time of Jakobson’s event. Smaill may hail from New Zealand but her novel keeps us in England, albeit a post-apocalyptic England in which collective memory has been erased through chimes, music which sounds out morning and evening.  Only a few are capable of a medium to long term memory and that only when prompted by objects. These people are hunted down by the Order – they are dangerous, because they may just find out what really happened …… Anna Smaill is a trained classical violinist and music infiltrates the life and language of her novel.  A little too much, for my taste.  I found it repetitive, but then I’m in no way musical.

Sailing across the Channel now to visit Simenon in Belgium, though in reality Maigret in France, during two events.  The first, a reading workshop with Sîan Reynolds, one of the translators, involved in the Penguin project, the second a conversation with Simenon’s son, chaired by Daniel Hahn.

John Simenon and Daniel Hahn
John Simenon and Daniel Hahn

Two events with very different formats, though sharing much content.  On the difficulties of translating Simenon’s simple prose, Reynolds pointed out the challenge of translating the text without making it sounding archaic or introducing modernism.  Interesting too to find that others are as fascinated by Madame Maigret as myself – Is she a mother figure, providing Maigret a safe haven, a nest to which he always returns? (Simenon lost his mother as a young child.) Apparently Simenon originally intended to write only 17 Maigret novels. This he did in the 1930’s.  He was persuaded to continue in the 1950’s and eventually penning 75.  Madame Maigret changes and becomes more pivotal in this second “batch”. Hhmm, this provides an impetus to continue reading. (I was considering calling it a day after 10 – I became slightly jaded by the conceit of the unknown stranger in The Dancer at The Gai-Moulin – Simenon, I’m not that stupid. However, I bought the novels 11 and 12 in the series and tracked down a copy of Maigret’s Memoirs – a book recommended by both Reynolds and Simenon, which features a conversatiion between Simenon and Maigret, and illuminates the author’s intent and technique in greater detail. BTW: Thr upcoming UK TV programme is a novel from the 50’s and for those who doubt the casting of Rowan Atkinson, John Simenon let it be known that he is rather good.

Main Event 16:00
Main Event 16:00

Onto Switzerland and to the main event of this year’s festival for me.  There may have been nagging on feedback forms in prior years but this was the third year of translation duels at the EIBF, and this was the first German translation duel.  (Everything comes to she who waits.) Ruth Martin and Shaun Whiteside were asked to translate a passage by Peter Stamm – a passage taken from the start of Stamm’s as yet unpublished novel Weit über das Land. Translation duels are always illuminating and hilarious, particularly when the author admits, upon close questioning , that he’s not entirely sure what he meant either.  “It’s not published yet,” said Hahn.  “You can still edit!” Ambiguity aside, who would have thought that rogue commas and conjunctions could be so fascinating.  (You’ll understand if you’ve ever tried to translate one of those interminably long German constructs.)  There’s a blow by blow account of the duel on #edbookfest’s Day 9 storify if you’re interested. Not sure I would have scored it this way myself.  I was very impressed with Whiteside’s intuition regarding the repetition of the word “verschwinden” – disappearance turns out to be a major theme in the novel, which he picked up having seen only the first six paragraphs.

Let’s stick with German for a while and award Timur Vermes, Lizzy’s reading of the festival award, for his resurrected Hitler from the opening page of Look Who’s Back.  It was very, very funny, as is the beginning of a book which becomes progressively more disconcerting.  Vermes’s point is that the Gemans did not vote fo a monster, that they were taken in by a clever man with attractive policies, and, without due diligence, it could happen again, anywhere.  “Writing as Hitler, was very easy”,  he said.  “I had the blueprint in Mein Kampf. ” There is to be a film – which will be interesting, although I can’t see how a film can recreate the experience of being inside Hitler’s head and the more diconcerting experience of agreeing with him …. sometimes.

From Germany to Russia, and Rosamund Bartlett’s reading workshop on Anna Karenina was everything I hoped for and more. 90 minutes to dscuss what is often mooted as the finest novel ever written.  Each participant was asked to submit written responses to  2 questions.  1) Why is AK such a fine novel? 2) Which question would you like to ask?  Bartlett then selected responses at random to discuss.  It was surprisingly effective.   Discussion ranged from Tolstoyian technique, the tradition of anti-heroes in Russian literature, the importance of mushroom picking in Russian culture, auto-biographical elements in the novel, the difficulties of identifying the hero and AK as a feminist text.  In addition, much was explained about the challenges of translation.  I even gained an insight into why I abandoned Pevear and Volokonsky’s translation of War and Peace.  (It’s down their ethos of being sticking to the Russian rather than creating a seamless English text.)

Sean Michael’s Giller prize winning novel, Us Conductors moves us further east into Siberia and back in time to the 1920’s and vibracy of the Jazz Age.  It tells the story of Soviet scientist, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, inventor of the very strange sounding instrument, the theremin.  As I said above, I’m not in the least bit musical, so I’d never heard of this before – an instrument played without touch.  I am intrigued, and the  book has moved to the immediate TBR.

Michaels said that researching this novel made him very melancholy. The hopes, optimisim and modernism of the 1920’s have – 100 years later – faded to nought.  “We’re doomed”, he said.

Let’s follow the faded dreams and melancholy with Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset which takes us to the USA, specifically Hollywood during the final years of Scott Fitzgerald’s life.  When asked why he wrote a novel, rather than a biography, Nan replied “I asked myself what happens after the worst happens? How do you go on?  I wanted to try to feel what he felt.  The job of the fiction writer is to explore the places the biographer can’t.”  West of Sunset concerns itself Fitzgerald’s screen-writing years.  While he only ever received one screen-writing credit (Three Comrades, 1938).  Fitzgerald worked hard (when he wasn’t drinking.)  He repaid his debts and he fell in love again.  Perhaps his final years weren’t as disastrous as is received opinion?  Novel purchased, and added to TBR.

Our next eastward bound long haul flight takes us to Uganda and my final impulse purchase of the festival.  When Idi Amin came to power, Anyuru’s father found himself in Greece training to be a pilot.  Amin’s coup meamt he could not return home and he spent years of his life, stateless, waiting for his country  to become stable enough to return.  It did not happen and he finally settled in Sweden.  Anyuru has taken his father’s experience to explore the rootlessness and loss of identity that occurs when individuals are caught up in events they cannot control.  A best-selling  poet and novelist in Sweden, Anyuru’s A Storm Blew In From Paradise is the first of his books to be translated into English.

My time at this year’s festival is running out.  I need to make my way home.

Kingnorth, Rylance and Shaw (Credit Edinburgh Internation Book Festival)
Kingnorth, Rylance and Shaw (Credit Edinburgh Internation Book Festival)

So let’s travel through time back to 1066 and the England of William the Conqueror – otherwise known as William the Bastard – for two reasons, said Paul Kingsnorth, drily, before passionately expounding on the price paid by England for William’s victory. (The Harrying of the North)  Kingsnorth was accompanied on stage by Mark Rylance (yes, he of Cromwellian fame) and Martin Shaw (the storyteller) for a tour-de-force storytelling performance.  Kingsnorth provided the history, Rylance, the readings from Kingsnorth’s Booker shortlisted The Wake, and Shaw, the music and legends of the Fens, a dangerous place for the unknowing in those days.  It was a masterful 90 minutes performance by all three, amd I’m pretty sure the audience would have been happy to be kept spellbound for a further 90 minutes.  It wasn’t enough to persuade me to read Kingnorth’s novel, which is written in a contemporary version of Anglo-Saxon, but I am more than curious to see what happens now that Mark Rylance has optioned the film rights.

And finally, to complete this circuit of the globe, Dan Gunn’s The Emperor of Ice-Cream brings us back to Scotland, albeit to tragic and completely avoidable events during the Second World War.  In June 1940 the Arandora Star was torpedoed by a German U-boat  as she was sailing to Canada.  On board were hundreds of prisoners of war and German and Italian “enemy aliens”.  Many of the Italians were born and bred in Edinburgh and held British passports.  The father of Dan Gunn’s friend was one of the victims, hence his interest in the story.  The novel examines the Italian community in Edinburgh during the 1920’s and 1930’s, the impact of Fascism, the reverberations of Mussolini’s alignment with Hitler and Britain’s refusal to learn the lessons of World War One.  (We will never intern enemy aliens again ……) The Pezzini family represent the Italian community.  Dario is the political voice, Emilio, the poetical voice and Guilio, founder of the ice-cream parlour and the inclusive voice,  The story is told by Lucia, their sister,  who has the thankless task of holding the family together.  The indomitable, Paola, her sister-in-law, and founder of a fish-and-chip shop, provides necessary comic relief.  Though as the natural survivor, she is not a comc character.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. Full review to follow.


Ducks trading storiesAnd there you have it.  When the programme lauched, EIBF issued a challenge to read around the world in 18 days,  Well, I’ve done it twice in 7 days at the festival, the first circuit in a westwards direction, this one ever eastwards.  Admittedly I never visited Mexico, which had a festival focus of its own.  Nor did I make it to South American shores.  Both would have been possible, had I been able to stay to the end of the festival. But alas, I must away, leaving the festival ducks to trade their wonderfully stimulating stories with others … for now.  We’ll meet again in 2016.