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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

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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

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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!

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imageWinner of the 2015 Costa Biography Award

When Alexander von Humboldt, at the age of 30, took himself off to South America in 1799 little did he, or the world, realise that he would be there for 5 years and that he would formulate the theories and proofs that would shape and inspire scientists and thinkers for centuries thereafter. He would show that the earth, the sea currents, the air currents, the ecosystems are bound together in one living organism, a great chain of cause and effect. Disrupt one link in the chain and you disrupt the whole. He was the first to become concerned with the ecological damage we humans cause in general and with deforestation in particular. Not only that, he knew how to engage the public. His writings presented his findings in a way that was inclusive – blending science with literary flourish and sentiment to enable non-experts to understand his discoveries. His drawing of the natural landscape and the plant distribution in the Andes was revolutionary.

Geography of Plants in the Tropics (from wikmedia)

The books he published were magnificent. Lavishly illustrated, no expense spared. The production team consisting of the best cartographers, illustrators, typesetters and bookbinders available to him. By the time he published the first volume of Cosmos in 1845, they were collector’s items before they even left the presses and the rest of world waited breathlessly until a translation became available. (I’ve added an activity to my bucket list. I need to see an original one day. )

So how did Humboldt, the discoverer of continental drift, the magnetic equator and the inventor of isotherms we see every day on the weather maps, become “The Lost Hero of Science” in the English-speaking world? We may have chosen to forget him due to his nationality and the course of 20th century history. ( A supreme irony in that he was happier in France than in Germany and would have chosen to stay in Paris, had he not been dependent on his income from the King of Prussia. His inheritance was spent financing the South American trip.) Or we may have assimilated his ideas so completely, that their originator has been rendered invisible. Andrea Wulf wrote her book in order to find him, to make him rematerialise and to reassess his importance to our current understanding of the world.

Her book is a wonderful read, written in an accessible style that Humboldt would approve. Tracing Humboldt’s early years of restlessness and frustration, staying in Germany on the orders of his mother – no inheritance otherwise. Sailing to South America with Aimé Bonpland on that life-defining and dangerous adventure, one which Wulf brings to life. Returning to the Europe of the Napoleonic Wars, striving to remain apolitical until recalled to Germany to serve the king. His restlessness never leaving him. Making his final expedition across the Russian Steppes and into China at the age of 60! What a man! What a mind! His monarch, Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia once called him “the greatest man since the deluge”. I wouldn’t ascribe to that but I understand  the sentiment.

The final third of the book is devoted to the influential scientists, writers and environmentalists who took up Humboldt’s ideas and ran with them: Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. These chapters are as immersive as Humboldt’s biography, with every word proving Wulf’s point that the man who shaped the way we understand the world, whose centennial in 1869 was celebrated with parades on the streets of America but is now largely forgotten, deserves to be restored to his rightful place in our collective memory.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

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imageWinner of the Austrian Alpha Literature Prize 2012

Translated from German by Sheila Dickie

Taguchi Hiro is a 20-year old hikikomori – a young man who has not ventured from his bedroom for two years.  He has not spoken to his parents, having shut himself off from all human contact.

Ohara Tetsu is a middle-aged employee, who has just lost his job, but cannot “confess”.  So every day he dresses for the office, leaves the house, and travels to a park bench, where he spends the day before returning home to his wife.

There he meets Taguchi, who is just beginning to take tentative steps at reentering the world.  At first there is little communication,  neither wishing to break out of their shells, but gradually they open up to each other and the full extent of the shame they feel is revealed.

Who would have thought that conversations between two broken souls could be so spell-binding?

At first I thought this was a quirky read.  Then when I googled hikikomori and discovered that there are an estimated 1 million such in contemporary Japan, I realised Flašar is addressing a serious issue.  Ohara Tetsu’s shame at becoming unemployed is something I could feel, although perhaps quite as deeply.  It’s a fact of life in austerity Britain, no longer a point of honour.

The style – short sections, alternating narratives – makes for easy reading.  Yet, as the traumatic events leading to Taguchi’s breakdown are revealed, the cumulative effect is devastating.  Similarly Ohara’s story of his failures as husband and father is extremely moving. At the mid-point I was on the verge of tears.

The tragic losses endured by both shocked me.  Yet it was insightful details that got under my skin; the leitmotif of Ohara’s lunchbox, Taguchi’s realisation of the price his parents were paying for his withdrawal.  In order to cope, they too had become hikikomori of sorts.

For all their flaws, there isn’t an unsympathetic main character in these pages, just circumstances and societal expectations that crush the vulnerable.  While the main mood is profoundly sad, the final word “BEGINNING” sounds a hopeful note. And at that point, my defences cracked and I cried me a river.

5stars.GIF

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

 

 

 

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Who_is_Martha.JPGWinner of the Adalbert Chamisso Prize 2013
Translated from German by Arabella Spencer

It’s no spoiler to tell that Martha was the last passenger pigeon who died in Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914; the day on which Gaponenko’s protagonist Luka Levadski is born. 96 years later Levadski is facing his own cancer-related extinction. The last of his line, he relates strongly to Martha.

What to do? Take the chemo to extend his life by a couple of months and wait out the end in his cramped appartment in the Ukraine, or, enjoy his savings with one last adventure in a luxurious hotel in Vienna. He takes the option I find rather appealing.

To hell with radiation theapy and all those other highly poisonous drugs. Instead, he would treat himself to a piece of chocolate cake every day in honour of his mother, a widow who, between the wars, had been in the habit of ordering chocolate cake for Levadski in Vienna’s finest hotel.

For Levadski, Vienna is the scene of his childhood memories; his mother and two music-loving aunts, who took him regularly to concerts in the Musikverein; a  place of happiness in contrast to the drabness of his life in the Ukraine, despite him being a world-renowned ornithologist. Decision made, the adventure begins and he kits himself out to die in luxury and style, and to confirm that we have a character on our hands,  his favourite purchase turns out to be a black polished drinking stick with an eagle-throat handle in sterling silver and a built-in glass tube for liquids of his choice!

Once settled into the Hotel Imperial, he revels in the luxury but cannot entirely escape the frailness of his condition or the loneliness of his old age – This is no Little Old Man Who Jumped Out of a Window, but a thoughtful poignant reflection on age and advancing death.  Nevertheless Levadski’s spirits never sag and he finds comfort in the understanding, even tender care, of his butler, Habib, and enjoyment in a new, if fleeting, friendship with another old man,  Mr Witzturn.  Their night out to the Musikverein and post-concert drinking session can be considered the highlight of the novel.

Interspersed throughout are his memories of an almost migratory existence populated wih many avian metaphors and similes. The musical heritage of Vienna and Europe is handled similarly.  This is a cultured and elegant composition abounding in originality.  I quote my favourite metaphor to demonstrate.

The pathetic sparkle and the paltry entertainment to which the old women desperately clung could be likened to a sparsely populated lake, where a mollusc counts as half a fish.

As Levadski approaches the unavoidable, the narrative slips suddenly into a surrealism at odds with the rest. I suppose this reflects the disorientation of a dying man, but it ruined the poignancy of the inevitable for me.  However, this is the only spurious ingredient in a very fine dish, which I recommend for those with palates desirous of literary haute cuisine.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

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imageWinner of the 1978 Robert Walser Prize

Translated from German by Adrian Nathan West

Original title: Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse

Firstly let me say how glad I am that Adrian Nathan West didn’t opt for the literal translation of the title.  I wouldn’t have entertained a novel entitled “The Gravity of  Circumstances” regardless of it being picked as the first read for Three Percent’s Reading The World Book Club.  Far too ponderous – too darned lebenswichtig by half.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some pretty heavy material in these pages, which begins

Of all the events of 1945, there was one Wilhelmine recalled with particular painful clarity.  Wilhelm has hung the necklace with the tiny Madonna around Berta’s neck, not hers.

A case of sibling rivalry you might think, nothing to worry about, except that Wilhelmine soon establishes herself as the most vicious and relentless pursuer of her own objectives ever to cross my reading path. Even so, when years later, she finally gets her hands on that necklace, it is an act so callous and calculated, it takes the breathe away, and earns her the title of villainess of the piece.

Unequivocally, despite …

Well, that would be telling, but her sister, Berta, ends up locked in a cage in a mental asylum as a result of what she does, and yet, Fritz ensures that the reader’s sympathies remain with her. For it is Berta who suffers under “the weight of things”, an incapacity to cope with life, “a softness in the head”, which first becomes manifest – in the novel at least  – when she is told of her fiancé’s death at the front.

… (She) sat down at the table, ran her hand over the tablecloth, trying to smooth it out; said again, “So. So.,” and didn’t even look up.

“So. So.”  becomes her refrain whenever life becomes too much.  Bertha’s tragedy is that her dead fiancé is the only one who understands her needs. He ensures that she has a husband, but Wilhelm, well-meaning as he is, isn’t made from the same mould.  Once Bertha’s mental disintegration is complete, he is no match for Wilhelmine (and, from that point on, deserves everything he gets imo!)

Ah yes, Wilhelm and Wilhelmine.  As mismatched a pair as you could ever conceive, in which Wilhelm is definitely not the Kaiser.  (I know this is an Austrian novel, but that is the association in my mind.)

Fritz plays with names here and throughout the piece, a device of which I am particularly fond.  This edition from Dorothy contains a helpful note on those names and their significance.  There is also an essay by the translator regarding Fritz’s oeuvre as a whole, which is unlikely to ever see the light of day in English.  Why?  Because it’s untranslatable.  Shame.  I’ll have to look out more titles from Dorothy instead.

Recommended for fans of Veronique Olmi’s Beside The Sea.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

 

 

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