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Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

Subtitled Or Something to Do with Books

It was the subtitle that reeled me in.  I dived in expecting this to be full of nostalgia for the books that influenced the 1972 Nobel Laureate. There is some of that but it is not the main focus. Set in the years 1933 -1937, this is a memoir of Böll’s formative schooldays which just happened to coincide with the years in which the Nazis consolidated their powerbase.  So fond school memories, with which Böll begins most chapters, are soon related to the background. There are bigger isues to deal with.

Written some 45 years after the events, Böll is careful not to let hindsight impinge on the story.  His aim is to describe the boy he was and the family he belonged to together with the impact that events had on their lives and the city they lived in (Cologne). The book ends very specifically on February 6, 1937, the day Böll graduated from high school, but he makes no other claims to historical accuracy with regard to the chronology of events. As he says, all his notes were destroyed during the war.

Böll’s family was Catholic with bohemian leanings and a natural aversion to Nazism. Outsiders though not belonging to any persecuted minority. They did not join the Party, did not attend rallies and, for a while at least, did not have to compromise. At school Böll was bored and, often played truant with his mother’s collusion, bicycling through the Rhine valley, often with a girl for company. When he did attend school, he studied Mein Kampf in great detail …

Our teacher, Mr Schmitz, a man of penetrating, witty, dry irony … used the hallowed text of Adolf Hitler the writer to demonstrate the importance of concise expression, known also as brevity. This meant that we had to take four or five pages from Mein Kampf and reduce them to two.

Thus, says Böll, not entirely tongue in cheek, I can thank Adolf Hitler the writer for some qualification to be a publisher’s reader and a liking for brevity.

If it hadn’t been for the Nazis, these would have been an idyllic few years. But the face of the German world was changing and Böll’s memoir conveys the shock of the general populace by events in 1933 such as the burning of the Reichstag, the signing of the Concordat (described by Böll as a body-blow) and the execution of alleged Communist conspirators in Cologne. Still the hope that Hitler wouldn’t last long died on June 1934 with the Röhm putsch. It was the dawn of the eternity of Nazism.

As the Nazi grip tightened, and the family finances deteriorated because Böll’s tradesman father couldn’t obtain any contracts, it was decided that material survival took priority over political survival, and that one member of the family had to join a Nazi organisation. His elder brother, Alois, was elected by the family council. Alois never really forgave them for it, even though in those early National Socialist years there were way of bribing your way out of the obligatory duties

The family’s biggest worry though was what’s to become of the boy? They all knew that Hitler meant war. Böll talks about his generation being schooled for death, the greatest honour being to die for the Fatherland. Which profession would offer a safety blanket? The priesthood? But Böll had discovered the opposite sex and was not willing. So with membership of the Nazi Labour Front an inevitability, Böll decided to do something with books and obtained an apprenticeship in a quiet, non-Nazi bookstore.

As the memoir ends, the illusion of remaining an outsider prevails. Böll has dodged a metaphorical bullet. As history shows, he wouldn’t be so lucky dodging the real ones which began to fly just two years later.

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December 2017 marks the centenary of Böll’s birth, so to commemorate the event, I intend to work my way through Melville House Publishing’s Essential Böll Series.  I started with the memoir to have a biographical reference point when (re-)reading his fiction.

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About 12 years ago I started my 20th Century Challenge – to read 100 authors, one book for each year of the 20th century. The idea was to complete it by the time I turned 50.  Then I started this blog and got distracted.  The new deadline is to finish the project in the next 18 months (or by the time I hit 60).  If all my choices are as delightful as the 1917 entry, the prequel to Morley’s more famous The Haunted Bookshop,  then this won’t be any hardship.

imageParnassus on Wheels is a delicious bibliophilic delight with none of the cloying sweetness I’ve tasted in other book of this nature.

Miss Helen Mcgill lives on the farm with her brother Andrew. When he become an author, he  neglects his farmer’s duties, and Helen finds herself running the farm as well as the household. Naturally she resents this, so when she is given an unexpected opportunity to escape she takes it.

One day, out of the blue, Mr Roger Mifflin shows up with his horse-drawn travelling bookshop, the eponymous Parnassus on Wheels.  He has decided that life on the road is too lonely and is hoping to sell his business to Andrew.  But Andrew is not at home.  Helen is, and she is in the mood for an adventure.

An avid reader herself, she believes that

When you sell a man a book, you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.

When she buys herself the Parnassus, she buys herself a whole new life.  She sets off with Mr Roger Mifflin, who will first train her in the art of preaching the gospel of good books before he catches his train back to New York.  Now he could sell coal to a coalman whereas Helen has no natural patter and a knowledge of the book trade that is less than encyclopaedic. Still she shows promise. A series of misadventures, however, results in an extension of her apprenticeship, during which Roger and Helen become unwittingly fond of each other.  Though they don’t recognise it until the machinations of her brother, incandescent at losing his unpaid skivy, threaten to deprive Roger of his freedom.  It is now Helen’s turn to ride to the rescue.

This a charming romantic comedy between an unlikely couple: Helen, a matter-of-fact spinster approaching middle-age and Roger,  a funny looking-man with a red beard, who, for all his salesmanship, might possibly read more books than he sells.  Set in a world in which the First World War had yet to encroach although there is a light-touch political undertone regarding the revolt of womenhood as Miss Helen McGill strikes out for the right to make her own decisions.  Three cheers for her and for the man who enables and defends her right to do so, Mr Roger Mifflin! While we’re cheering another three for all the books they discuss along the way!

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Translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

When Ali Smith describes a collection of short stories as the best she has ever read it proves impossible not to follow through on that recommendation (even if the book then lies on the shelf awaiting its reader for a further two-and-a-half years!) Anyway now that this reader has read it,  I can’t say that I agree (because – you know – Chekhov) but I can say that it is a pretty marvellous collection and certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.

It is the first time Fraile’s stories have appeared in English and it is thanks only to the efforts of the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, to persuade a reluctant author that they have done so.   Jull Costa first submitted a few of her translations to a committee, comprising of author, his wife and his daughter. They meticulously examined these around the kitchen table and  began to trust the translator when they realised that her pen was as loving as the author’s own. Fraile died during the translation of the stories that make up Things Look Different in the Light, but by that time the family trusted Jull Costa implicitly and allowed her to complete the collection, which consists of 29 stories covering the author’s career from 1954-2010.

Many are only 5 or 6 pages long, with the longest being 10 or 11 pages, so this is a collection which is ideal for carryng around and reading whenever there is a spare 5 minutes.  What I particularly enjoyed was the immediacy of setting, the author ensuring that the reader is given a complete set of  bearings within the first couple of paragraphs.  No flailing around wondering, who, what, when?  For starters, there isn’t time in vignettes such as these and secondly, there are a multitude of situations, most from everyday life.  Ordinary people, everyday interactions and objects,  situations we recognise and can transpose into our own lives, but filtered by Fraile to show how special or influential they may be, and how appreciative we should be.  As the dying grandmother says in The Last Shout

The thing is that miracles happen so often, they seem normal to us, the morning comes and then the night, the sun and the moon rise and set, the earth gives us harvest after harvest, and we say I’ll do that tomorrow and tomorrow we’re still alive to do it. …. Reality is a miracle.

The emotional registers are varied. There are straight-forward humorous stories with punchlines as in the title story  Things Look Different in The Light  for what can possibly go wrong when the foreman doesn’t communicate with the underground sign-painter?  In others the humour is altogether more wry as in Typist or Queen where the narrator gently mocks himself and his other male colleagues for their swarming around the beautiful office queen bee, Carmencita.    The Cashier is another queen whose reign over the restaurant’s cash register is supreme until a chance of romantic happiness appears.  Sadly ’tis but a fleeting moment as the uncertainities of life intervene. In  other stories the melancholy consists of the inevitable passing of time:  The Lemon Drop contains not only a little nostalgia for the sweets we used to enjoy as kids but also the memories they bring back when we eat them as adults;  Child’s Play surprisingly defines old age as a darkening of the world. As they age Flora’s and Martita’s need for light increases each day

They needed light so that their hair would shine and  heir eyes sparkle as they had when they were twenty, so that they could …. still be able to pick out the bees and the ducks on cross-stitch patterns.

Finally they install a chandelier that emits so much light, that when they die their bodies glow in the dark … For a while at least.

This slight magical element reappears in one of my personal favourites, The Shirt. It belongs to Fermin Ulía, a sailor, who falls for Maureen, his girl in the port of Dover.

He stood staring at her for a full three minutes, two of which he devoted to her nose alone. She had a turned-up nose that made her look as though she had a cold, but a very attractive cold, with no complications.

He comes back from that trip with a tartan flannel shirt that Maureen had chosen for him and ever after wears it whenever he goes sailing. But what happens on the day he fails to wear the shirt?

Each reader will have their own favourites here.  I asked Ali Smith to pick out hers, when she signed the foreword for me.  Without hesitation she highlighted Berta’s Presence, Things Look Different In the Light, and The Bookstall – all three have communication as their main theme.  My favourites have tragedy or old age at their core, so no surprise that my absolute favourite – Reparation – has both.  Is that because old age is a tragedy even if it approaches us all?  Perhaps a change of viewpoint is needed.  Things do look different in the light of the old lady’s comments at the beginning of this review.  Reality is a miracle, and it is truly a miracle that some of us ever reach old age.  So the lesson is to appreciate the small moments and enjoy.  These stories are as good a starting point as any.

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Stage 7 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is my final post for Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog. Thanks, Stu.  I had a blast!

Next stop: Africa

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Translated from Italian by Howard Curtis

In the world of literary awards, may the best book win.  Not so for the prize that is at the centre of Filippo Bologna’s satire, The Parrots, where winning The Prize (always capitalised) depends on mounting the best campaign.  (Is this invented or do things work differently in Italy?  Please tell in comments.)

Three authors are finalists for the prize in question:  The Beginner, the Writer and the Master.  Never named, they are obviously ciphers for the various stages of the literary career.  The Beginner has written a flawed but otherwise excellent début, the Writer is at the height of his powers but getting a bit predictable, and the Master has written a highly literary novel that might be a tad worthy.  For each man winning The Prize is a big deal: the Beginner to launch him to literary stardom, the Writer to give him the critical acclaim he craves, the Master because, having been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it is his last chance.

Of course the publishers are just as invested. The Beginner is sent to pound the bookshops with signings to raise his literary profile, the Writer is told to stop resting on his laurels, while the Master resorts to unfair influence. They all have to attend the  various press conferences and official parties, parrot out the correct clichés and generally inveigle themselves with the judges.

The novel begins three months before The Prize Ceremony, when everything is fairly calm.  At one month to the Prize ceremony, each author is beseiged by an extreme personal crisis.  The Beginner’s Girlfriend, who feels that his success has made him vainglorious and selfish, has made their future relationship dependant on him losing The Prize, the Writer’s big (and brilliant) secret is threatening to end his career prematurely, and the Master has made enemies in all the wrong places.

One week to the ceremony and the publishers have done all the canvassing they can.  It is now entirely up to the authors.  The Writer is the bookie’s favourite but behind the scenes, the Beginner is in poll position (“because when you’re at the start, the critics forgive you everything“). What are they prepared to do to lose/win The Prize?  Whatever it takes.  By fair means or foul.  Some of it is foul indeed. And it does affect the outcome.

Bologna has his sights trained on all aspects of the literary world: writers in all stages of their career, big publishers, small publishers, judging committees.  Even literary audiences are not exempt from a lampooning. The omniscient narrator is  knowing, and very, very funny, with the joke never falling flat.  The pacing is excellent with those increasingly desperate measures ensuring that the pages turned entirely of their own volition! (Or so it seemed to me.)

The Parrots of the title are a bit of a curiosity.  I think they do allude in some way to the three authors.  But there is also a strange malevolent black parrot that crashes into the Beginner’s flat window at the start.  Another (or is it the same one) appears in the final scene.  I have no idea what it portends.  All theories welcome.

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Stage 6 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

Next stop: Spain

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Translated from German by Anthea Bell

I’ve been rationing myself so as not to come to the end of the Pushkin Classic editions of Zweig’s novellas, but I reckon that the week of the 75th anniversary of his suicide is as fine a week as any to do so.  I also wanted to evaluate this volume, published in 2011, against the critique that Seksik has Zweig level against himself in The Last Days.

In the end, they were all invariably similar to one another: short stories about single-minded passions, irrepressible loves and macabre consequences … His work lit a series of conflagrations in the hearts of his heroes … The characters would attempt to resist their passions and once they relented and gave into them, their guilty consciences prompted them either to turn their backs on life or to lapse into madness.

Actually this is Zweig repeating the accusations of his critics and fellow writers (Klaus Mann and Ernst Weiss are specifically named)  which they used to argue his status as a minor writer.  And yes, they have a case, but those very same qualities are what make Zweig’s novellas compulsive reading for me and numerous others.  Still what about the four novellas in The Governess and Other Stories?

The Miracles of Life (1903), written at the age of 21, clearly demonstrates that the interest in history, that resulted in multiple biographies throughout Zweig’s career, began early. It is set Antwerp in 1566, the year of rebellion and rioting against Spanish rule, which forms the background.  Esther, a Jewish girl previously rescued from a pogrom by a kind-hearted soldier, becomes the subject of a religious painting destined to hang in a Catholic church. A number of passions are evident here: that of the artist for getting his painting  just right; that of both artist and subject for their respective religions (he is Christian, who believes his task is to convert the girl, while she, although having lost all connections to her own religious community, remains passionately attached to the Jewish faith); and finally, the passion that proves fatal, that of the girl for the child, who is the Saviour to her Madonna in the painting. This is the longest and most complex of the stories in this volume, full of atmospheric  historical detail and dramatic irony.  While the painter couldn’t convert the girl, he nevertheless unsuspectingly inflames her with a love for the child. This leads directly to the girl’s death.  For the Jewess, who has rejected the Christian faith,  dies defending a Catholic icon in the aforementioned riots. It’s also fascinating to see the conflict between Christian and Jew taking centre stage, particularly as Zweig never was an observant Jew.

The Governess (1907) is the usual tale of a governess who falls from grace, following her seduction by a member of the famiily she is working for.  Or rather it would be the usual tale except that the episode is described from the uncomprehending viewpoints of her two charges, aged 12 and 13. Their naivety is charming, and it lends a bittersweet charm to their narrative, because, of course, the reader knows where this is heading. That the girls have absolutely no clue of what has happened at that age is incomprehensible to us today, but this is Vienna in the early 20th century, and the disgrace is the governesses’s own. Of course, she must pay the penalty.

Downfall of the Heart (1927) moves us beyond the First World War, when the younger generation had rejected the moral values at play in The Governess. The problem here is that old man Salomonsohn is stuck in the past. The discovery that his daughter is sleeping with one of the three men flirting with her on a family holiday is as a blow to the heart, triggering an obsessive reaction that sees him increasingly withdraw from both wife and daughter.  This is the story that best fits the monomaniacal template of the critique above.  Yet not quite. I usually feel sympathy for the victims of their passions. I felt none for maudling old Salomonsohn.

If I were to describe Did He Do It? (1935-1940) in one word, it would be playful, and that even though it incorporates tragedy and a monomaniacal murderer!  Written sometime during the years Zweig spent in exile in the UK, this is both his homage to Bath, where he spent those happy years, and to the classic British murder mystery.  Obviously I can’t say too much about this, particularly as the ending is left open to interpretation, but there’s no doubt in my mind.  He did do it!

There’s no denying it – all these novellas fit the emotional template quoted above for tragedy is to be found in all walks of life – from the working classes to high society. After all,  human nature is the same regardless of station in life.  Yet Zweig rings the changes with historical settings (from the beginning of the Reformation to the roaring twenties and beyond) and narrative point-of-view (naïve young children, chatty middle-aged women, kindly or otherwise old men). Atmosphere and tone always fit.

Zweig was better writer than his critics have and still do suggest, and for me, reading him is much more enjoyable than reading many an acclaimed masterpiece. Which would explain why Zweig has more shelfspace than any other author in my personal library.

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Stage 5 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

Next stop: Italy

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Translated from French by André Naffis-Sahely

In memoriam Stefan and Lotte Zweig (died 22.02.1942)

One didn’t have to be a genius to imagine what people would say about him.  That he had abandoned others to their pain and deserted when the time had come to fight the enemy. When others had expected him to be an example, a hero even, he had run off like a coward.

Did people hurl such accusations at Stefan Zweig when, together with his wife, he committed suicide 75 years ago today? Do they today? If so, then a reading of Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days might ellicit a more sympathetic response.

Reconstructing the 5 months the Zweigs spent in Petrópolis, Seksik’s narrative, written in alternating 3rd person his and her points-of-view, takes us into the minds of two despondent human beings.  For those who have read Volker Weidermann’s Summer before the Dark, the contrast between the Zweigs of 1936 and those of 1942 is stark.  In 1936 the Zweigs were still in the rosy days of their love affair, his initially self-imposed exile had lasted just two years and he still had sufficient strength and creativity to support his less fortunate friends, both financially and emotionally. They really hadn’t realised how dark the world was to become.  Six years later and that was all too apparent.  Having fled Austria in 1934 (a prescient action, following a search of his home in Salzburg on a trumped-up excuse), and becoming a British citizen, Zweig was nonetheless declared an enemy alien in 1939.  Whereupon he fled again to New York, where he was too well-known, and could get no peace.  Thus another flight to  Petrópolis in 1941.

Lotte, totally besotted with her Great Austrian Writer, followed him.  Due to her chronic asthma, the air in New York was killing her.

The injustice of his being declared an enemy alien preyed on his mind – he was a committed pacifist, had been since 1914, and he never wavered.  Yet the effort of remaining on the higher moral ground was exhausting.  Then the guilt – the guilt of having left his family behind (regardless of the fact they thought him mad when he left of his own accord), imagining their suffering in a world going from bad to worse. Imagine reading reports like these, knowing your kin are trapped, and you are powerless to act:

City authorities in Vienna have decided to cut off all gas supplies to appartments occupied by Jews.  The ever rising number of suicides by gas have inconvenienced the population and such acts will henceforth be considered breaches of public order.

Of course, this was mild in comparison to reports that followed.  But, instead of relief at being safe, torments: survivor guilt, dismay over the deaths and suicides of his author friends (Roth, Toller, Weiss), creative difficulties (everything seemed irrelevant, and the voices of his critics were ringing ever louder in his head), despondency over his world that was lost forever. It would not return even if the Allies were victorious.  Neither was he positioning himself for an afterwards.  As his closest friend in Petrópolis, the journalist Ernst Feder pointed out:

You look for a path through the darkness and wander from country to country with neither children nor a fixed address, and now you’ve buried yourself away in this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere. Meanwhile Mann proceeds full steam ahead. Mann surrounds himself with people and protects himself. He has placed himself at the crossroads so as to watch all comings and goings, he’s the sun around which everyone revolves. …. Mann is planning his reconquest of the literary world … On the other hand, here you are doing the utmost to disappear.

And disappear he did, following the British defeat at Singapore. Convinced that now it was only a matter of time before the Gestapo would find him in Petrópolis, and totally overcome by world-weariness, he decided his last flight would be the final one.

But why take Lotte with him?  She was only 30 to his 60.  (If I had any accusations against him, it was that.) Seksik’s analysis of Lotte’s psyche is just as incisive as of her husband. She was as psychologically afflicted by the times as her husband.  Chronically ill.  Worn down by exile. With no family of her own, no career of her own, she was even more isolated than Zweig himself.  He literally was her everything.  What was she to do when he made known his intentions?

He didn’t take her with him. Lotte followed him.  Of course she did.

It was a tragedy.  Unnecessary, as we now know, but inevitable, given the darkness of the times and the darkness inherent within Zweig himself.  Seksik incorporates some interesting observations about Zweig’s literary themes as well as a thought-provoking comparison of Kleist and Zweig that suggests an undercurrent I’ve never suspected before now.  I’m sure it will colour my reading as I continue to read through his oeuvre.

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This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

Almost a world tour in itself – taking us to Vienna, Austria (pre- and post Anschluss), Bath in Great Britain, New York, USA and Petrópolis, Brazil – this post is also stage 4 in my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press.  We’re staying in Austria for Stage 5 – at keast I think we are.  It depends on where my chosen collection of Zweig’s short stories takes us!

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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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