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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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image23.04.2016 will be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and there will be a plethora of commemorative book and events to partake of. I’ve been warming up during 2015 by attending as many live-in-the-cinema performances as possible: RSC stagings of The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and, most recently, The Winter’s Tale, live from the Garrick, performed by Kenneth Brannagh’s theatre company, with the magnificent Brannagh, himself as Leontes, and the superb Dame Judi Dench as Pauline.

Marvellous experiences, one and all, and I intend to continue this habit during 2016. I also intend to read all the Hogarth Shakespeare retellings, particularly, if they are as strong as Jeanette Winterson’s offering, The Gap of Time, a modern riff on The Winter’s Tale.

To save time, here’s a link to the No Sweat Shakespeare plot synopsis of A Winter’s Tale.   A drama full of explosive irrational emotions, which seemingly spring from nowhere in the time frame of a stage play.  Plenty of gaps for a novelist to play with and flesh out – and given that sexual jealousy lies at the heart of this, wriggle-room for Winterson to sex it up  and modernise it.  Which she does.  Just enough not to overplay it.    While I didn’t pick up on any LGBT undertones in the Leontes/Polixenes original, I’m not saying there aren’t any.  Given the content of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Winterson’s evaluation of that relationship is more likely than mine.

The structure of the novel remains true.  First section: the idyll is destroyed by destructive jealousy.  Second section: 16 years later and the next generation seem intent, albeit unknowingly, on bringing together the two families, ravaged by past events.  Third section: Genuine regret and redemption.  I have to say,  Winterson made my heart ache  and brought tears to my eyes.  Shakespeare did not.

The question is though, would this stand as a novel in its own right to a reader unacquainted with A Winter’s Tale?  Because I’d been at the cine-theatre only a couple of week’s earlier, it’s hard to say.  Much of my enjoyment derived from Winterson’s wit, for example, transposing the card sharp Autolycus into the owner of the used car dealership  AUTOS LIKE US.  On the opposing spectrum, the  tragedy of the “exit persued by a bear” stage direction is transformed into a suitably random but entirely realistic contemporary equivalent.

Winterson’s epilogue, a heartfelt mini-essay explaining the personal significance of the play is profound, illuminating, and as enjoyable as her Winter’s Tale retold.  If the rest of the series matches this, then reading pleasures in 2016 will be sublime.

 

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Playthings – Alex Pheby

It’s almost seven years since I read and reviewed Alex Pheby’s debut novel, Grace. (A must read for those who love modern takes on the fairy tale.) I enjoyed it so much that Pheby became the first author interviewed on the blog.  In that interview he revealed he was writing a novel about Daniel Paul Schreber, a high-ranking judge whose Memoirs of my Nervous Illness have become mandatory reading for psychologists and psychiatrists  through the intervening decades. They’re fascinating, horrifying and heart-rending said Pheby as he promised to make his novel equally good.

imagePlaythings was published in November 2015 and has already been dubbed “the best neuronovel ever written” by the Literary Review.  This suggests that Pheby has succeeded in meeting his objectives, and if you’re looking for a second opinion, I would concur.  You won’t find anything more fascinating, horrifying and heart-rending in the 2015 fiction releases.

The novel fascinates from the first paragraph.

Coal dropped through the chute, sending a hint of black rising up the stairs into the hall.  Schreber stopped.  Framed in the archway into the drawing room, he swallowed and took a deep breath.  Nothing to be concerned about. Quite the opposite really. Some coal dust mingling with the scent of fresh flowers.  The post laid in a fan on the hall table.  Dim light.  The opaque mist of bacon fat heated past transparency on to smoking and spitting.  Simple matters.

Indeed but even in this everyday scenario, there are hints of consternation.  A third person narrative but from Schreber’s point-of-view.  Broken sentences. A man trying to retain his balance when there is nothing to worry about.  Just waiting to fall off the nervous edge.  So when he finds his wife lying prone after suffering a stroke, over the edge he goes.

Following a distressed meander through the Dresden suburbs, during which he does something obscene, he is apprehended and committed to a lunatic asylum.

It’s here that the horror truly begins.

imageAt first the regime is benign.  He is a gentleman.  His room is comfortable and he has a personal attendant.  But he is bewildered.  What has happened to his wife?  Why is he not allowed visitors?  He becomes bellicose and difficult, even as he tries to prove his reasonableness and sanity.  Each incident leads to a tightening of the regime, and Schreber is no novice.  The novel is set during his third and final incarceration.  He knows that patients deemed incurable eventually end up in the isolation cells below from which most never return.

It matters not.  He is a sick man unable to control his inexorable downward spiral. (And indeed, given the details of the conditions in that place, that’s entirely unsurprising.)

More horrifying than the physical circumstances are his tormented memories – the cause of his dementia praecox (paranoid schizophrenia in C21st speak).  The sensitive son of Moritz Schreber, a famous child-rearing expert of his day, Daniel Paul Schreber appears to have been damaged by the totalitarianism of his father’s harsh edicts.  A tendency to effeminateness and transvestitism will not have helped either in those times.  Freud, in his analysis of Schreber’s case made much of this.  Pheby makes mention of it but emphasises more the culpability of his father’s cruelty as an explanation for the son’s mental fragility.

As Pheby said, Schreber’s circumstances are heart-rending.  But not only his.  A series of rare conversations with his relatives make clear the impact on Schreber’s illness on their lives.  His wife is ashamed of her husband’s erratc behaviour and mortified by the publication of the afore-mentioned Memoirs. (OK this may not be the most sympathetic stance but it is entirely understandable.) His step-daughter, who adored him, loses him at a tender age and grows up without him.  It is clear that Schreber had broken the mould, was not going to repeat the pattern of his own childhood and had formed a truly loving bond with her.  Unfortunately fate, and the inefficacy of early C20th psychiatric care, were to rob them both.

So how much of Schreber’s psychotic drug-addled point-of-view can we believe?  Where is the line between fact and hallucination? How many events and motivations in Pheby’s novel are imagined? Where are the gaps (the chronology isn’t always clear). I decided not to bother myself with any of that, and I still haven’t read Schreber’s real memoirs.  I decided simply  to experience events from inside Schreber’s fictionalised head.    It’s surprising how rational it seemed …. Not all of it, but most of it.  Is that a cause for worry?  Probably but like Schreber I prefer my own spin, and choose to see it as evidence of authorly ambition well realised.

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Ballad of the Hanged Men by François Villon , (translated by Richard Wilbur)

O brother men who after us remain,
Do not look coldly on the scene you view,
For if you pity wretchedness and pain,
God will the more incline to pity you.
You see us hang here, half a dozen who
Indulged the flesh in every liberty
Till it was pecked and rotted, as you see,
And these our bones to dust and ashes fall.
Let no one mock our sorry company,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.

If we have called you brothers, don’t disdain
The appellation, though alas it’s true
That not all men are equal as to brain,
And that our crimes and blunders were not few.
Commend us, now that we are dead, unto
The Virgin Mary’s son, in hopes that He
Will not be sparing of His clemency,
But save our souls, which Satan would enthrall.
We’re dead now, brothers; show your charity,
And pray to God that He forgive us all.

We have been rinsed and laundered by the rain,
And by the sunlight dried and blackened too.
Magpie and crow have plucked our eyeballs twain
And cropped our eyebrows and the beards we grew.
Nor have we any rest at all, for to
And fro we sway at the wind’s fantasy,
Which has no object, yet would have us be
(Pitted like thimbles) at its beck and call.
Do not aspire to our fraternity,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.
Prince Jesus, we implore Your Majesty
To spare us Hell’s distress and obloquy;
We want no part of what may there befall.
And, mortal men, let’s have no mockery,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.

Such is the power and sincerity of those words that you can tell François Villon (1431-unknown) was convinced that this would be his fate. For not only was/is he the best known French poet of the late middle ages, he was a criminal, sentenced to death in 1461.  In 1463 the sentence was commuted to banishment and, thereafter, he disappeared from view.

brotherhood of Book Hunters

Translated from French by Howard Curtis

Such mysteries are inspirational to historical novelists and Jerusalmy “solves” this one with a conspiracy involving Louis XI, the Bishop of Paris, German bookmakers, secret Jewish societies, corrupt monks, the Inquisition, a double-agent slave girl and a French poet on an adventure that turns him into a kind of medieval Indiana Jones.

It starts reasonably enough,  The condemned Villon is in prison when he is visited by the Bishop of Paris, with a message from the King. In return for his freedom he is to persuade the German bookmaker, Johannes Fust, to set up shop in Paris.  France has no printing press of its own and the King wants that to end.  Printing presses in those days conferred power on those who controlled their output and a way of weakening the power of the Vatican.  So Villon, a man of letters, is to entice Just to Paris with the rare and forbidden books that the King will put at his disposal.

If only it were that easy.

Because in the days when knowledge was power and just beginning to reach the common man thanks to that new-fangled invention, the printing press, those books had powerful enemies. Soon Villon  and his fellow brigand, Colin, are embroiled in plot and counterplot and danger to life and limb as they trek across to the Holy Land to bring more of the contraband to France.  There they must prove themselves to the secretive Brotherhood of Book Hunters, an organisation with the mission to preserve the world’s knowledge by rescuing ancient books and manuscripts from the hands of those who would destroy them.

I’m not going to pretend that I kept up with the numerous twists and turns of the plot.  I just went along for the ride.  I’m not going to pretend that the writing is brilliant. Too much narrative, not enough dialogue but then, in mitigation, there was an awful lot of ground to cover.  (France, The Middle East with diversions to Italy.)  I can’t claim to know whether The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is/was real.  There must be something in Jerusalmy’s theory because how else have ancient, and to the Inquisition heretical texts survived?  Perhaps the Brotherhood is an amalgam of all the courageous individuals in history who have braved the wrath of the establishment to preserve mankind’s intellectual heritage?

I did enjoy the warts and all characterisation of Villon and his fellow Coquillard, Colin;  heroes neither but scoundrels whose most pressing challenge is to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  I lapped up the intrigue, the journey into the past and Jerusalmy’s imagination, and I absolutely revelled in the sheer love of books and learning that infuses these pages.

Recommended for fellow bookworms.

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It seems as though I need cheering up – I’ve read more comedy this year than anything else.  Hence the second post in succession about comic novels; both of these set in Scotland, one extremely well-known, the other, not so much, but it should be.

Compton MacKenzie’s classic Whisky Galore is perfect for those long dark nights of winter: curled up with a suitable accompaniment.  (It must be the not so subliminal message!). The edition from Birlinn has a great dust jacket too!  Everyone in that whisky bottle seems to be having a great time.

One February morning in 1941, a cargo ship carrying hundreds of thousands of bottles of whisky ran aground a few sea-miles north of Compton MacKenzie’s home on the Hebridean island of Barra.  The islanders rushed to the rescue – the ship’s crew were safe, but the precious cargo? From such stuff was this spirited classic novel born.

Set in the same time frame as the historical incident, whisky is noted by its absence in the first half of the novel.  It is a strictly rationed substance as most of Scotland’s output was reserved for export to provide funds for the war.  The locals are disgruntled – one dram a day is their allowance, soon reduced further to one dram every two days,  The ration is distributed by the local landlord with draconian efficiency.  In addition, two couples wish to marry but cannot proceed to their nuptials without the Scottish nectar to oil the necessary ceremonies.

So when the ship is grounded and the rescue operation mounted ….the islanders are very happy … Or would be if the pesky customs and excise and home guard folk would leave them (and their booty) in peace.

MacKenzie (not a Scot, an Englishman and founder of the SNP) left Barra for England in 1944 and wrote this novel as a homage to the Hebrides in 1946.  His love for the islands, its people and their language is clear. The introduction to this volume identifies those characters who were modelled on the larger than life islanders of MacKenzie’s acquaintance.  So too other plot elements such as the Presbyterian/Catholic divide and rivalries of the Outer Hebrides, transposed without malice onto his two fictional islands: Great and Little Todday.  And the incomprehensibilty of the local lingo to foreign (English) ears.

“… really beautiful stuff.  You’ll just think you’re sippng cream.  Really a babe in arms would hardly know it was whisky. Uisge beatha.  Water of Life!” 

“That’s garlic, I suppose.”

“Ay, Gaelic it is.  What a pity you don’t know our glorious language.”

“Say that again, will you, Father Macalister’

Uisge beatha.”

“I see. Something like a sneeze and a yawn,” said Mrs Odd.

Nothing like the novel, I hasten to add.

Love, Revenge, Buttered SconesSwitching now from the west to the east of Scotland and Inverness,  Bobby Darbyshire’s Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones promises a treat that is as delicious as it sounds.  Particularly if you like the idea of a book group and an author event with unforeseen consequences.

Henry Jennings is Marjorie MacPherson’s biggest fan.  Having bombarded her with fan mail and love letters over the years, she invites him to a very special event at Inverness Library.  He decides to travel up from London to attend.  Things begin to go awry on the train – he spots his estranged younger brother and would-be poet, Peter, and is horrified when he also disembarks at Inverness.

He makes his way to the library, as does Peter.  Chaos ensures as he manages to avoid his brother, meets a lovely librarian, named Fiona (honestly, all Fionas are lovely), bumps into a Spanish lady called Elena and, of course, encounters Marjorie MacPherson, who surprises him in a way he cannot handle. One snowstorm, and a day later, a wounded Henry Jennings grabs his opportunity to flee Aberdeen, accompanying Elena to The Loch Craggan hotel to interview the reclusive author, Angus Urquhart. He is surprised to find Fiona is driving them there and horrified that Peter is already sitting in the front seat!

Nor is that the only unpleasant surprise for Henry because Marjorie MacPherson turns up at the hotel as well!  Poor man: chagrined beyond all measure, tormented by the cruel wit of his brother, can the new ladies in his life provide comfort?  What is about the old goat, Angus, who bounds up and down the mountains as sure footedly as a goat,  that binds Peter, Fiona and Elena together?  Who will find love, who revenge and who will settle for buttered scones?

I have no notes/no quotes to refer to because I was too busy turning the pages of this fantastic farce with melancholic undertones.  Embellished with loneliness, vanity, revenge, sexual politics and a chef who bakes buttered scones to die for!  Together with surprising happy endings for all.  The plot is, of course, slightly unfeasible, but who cares?

I read this novel as part of #tbr20.  My only regret is that it sat unloved in the TBR for nigh on 5 years before I did so.

Whisky Galore 4stars.GIF / Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones 4stars.GIF

 

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I decided long before I opened the first page of Ishiguro’s latest, that I would not be reviewing it. The blogosphere will be awash with reviews I decided. Instead would tweet my reactions and then consolidate the tweets to tell the story. Let us begin ….

And there you have it. An experiment that didn’t work too well, because after a first chapter of much promise, I didn’t want my next tweet to be “Oh dear.  It’s gone off the boil.” 

And the temperature never rose again.  I had intended to devour the book in two sittings in time for Ishiguro’s Edinburgh event, but couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm. I made it to page 148, by which time Ishiguro’s job was to persuade me to finish…

The blogosphere has been awash with details of Ishiguro’s very comprehensive book tour and insights into the book.  So I’ll just mention a few points I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere.

1) This was an Edinburgh Book Festival event.  The EIBF in March? Yes, indeed. Increased funding from a variety of sources means that there will be events throughout the year, not just during August.  This can only be a good thing.

2) The event was held in the Lyceum – my favourite theatre – though not ideal for audience questions when the audience was seated on 3 levels and there were ongoing issues with microphones.

3) Who knew that Ishiguro spent his gap year working as a grouse beater at Balmoral?  There is no better way to see the moors, he said.  You’re off the tracks and must not break formation.  If you meet a bush, you must go through it.  if you meet a bog, you must wade through it.  (Hence, the splendid evocations of Dark Age British landscapes, I suppose.)

4) On the somewhat cool reactions to The Buried Giant: I’m doing something different.  Critical reaction has always been the same, whenever I change direction.  Critics didn’t like me not being a Japanese writer when I published the quinessentially English The Remains of the Day.

5I never for one moment anticipated the furore about the fantastical elements in The Buried Giant.  When I’m writing, I’m so immersed in driving forward the plot (his actual word was desperate), that I’ll grab onto any device that helps me do that.

(Editor’s note: This is not convincing me to read further. I’m not a fan of the ageing Sir Gawain and the geriatric dragon …)

6) Audience question: Is Edwin a terrorist in training?  Answer: I wouldn’t say that but he is about to be radicalised. 

(Editor’s note: Now we’re getting somewhere …)

And indeed we were.  Ishiguro explained that the neutral non-realistic dark age setting allowed him to explore the theme of genocide without the story getting hung up on historical particulars. This is a land where things best forgotten remain that way.  Both in the collective consciousness and in the more intimate memory of a long marriage.

This was the point that persuaded me to read on and complete the novel.  Yes, I can see the advantages of the defamiliarisation and the threats that appear when difficult memories begin to emerge from the mists, but I do wish the details weren’t so opaque. Everything is symbolic or should that be allegorical? In which case what’s the purpose behind confiscating Axl and Beatrice’s candle in chapter 1? Or the meaning of the mysterious boat ride in the final chapter? As you can see, I had problems from beginning to end.  Guaranteed not to appear on my best of 2015 list.

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