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imageTranslated from Dutch by Sam Garrett

De Avonden! Gerard Reve’s 1947 masterpiece finally translated into English!  The book  that the Dutch Society of Literature has declared the Best Dutch Novel of All Time … finally translated into English!

It is a cause for celebration.  It doesn’t matter whether I enjoyed it.  Does it?

At this point, I wonder how to approach the it’s-not-the-book-it’s-me review …

Because if you look at the literary comparisons that have been made with Camus (can’t stand him) and  Knausgaard (just does not appeal),  you have to wonder why I was so keen to read this. In a word, nostalgia.  The fact is, many moons ago I read it in Dutch.  I know I did – I read everything on the syllabus of my Dutch course (yes, even Multatuli) but I have no memory of it.  Perhaps I struck it from memory because even then it didn’t sit too well with me … Or come to think of it, it was more likely a dreaded DNF.  At least I finished it in English.

So now that I have declared myself, I’ll tell you about the book and let you decide whether you’d like to give it a spin. Actually I should just let Tony tell you about it, because he has much more patience with this type of novel.

It’s 1946 and Frits van Egters, a 23-year old bachelor, is still living with his parents, who drive him crazy with their petty squabbling. He has a boring office job and there is no end in sight.  He lives for the evenings, which he spends mostly wandering the cold streets of Amsterdam, or chatting with his mates in their homes, or occasionally going to the cinema or the dance hall.  There’s no girlfriend, and, probably, no chance of one given Frits’s candour and  lack of diplomacy. (I’ll come back to that later.)  He is truly stuck in a rut.

The novel is structured over 10 days and nights and each day breaks down into time spent in the parental home, time spent outside either alone or with his mates, and time spent sleeping and dreaming.  (Dreams in fiction  – there’s another pet hate of mine.) There’s little said about the office, because there is little to say.

I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is all.

Everything is told in 3rd person but from Frits’s point-of-view – the minutiae of his mundane life, his thoughts, the long conversations anf his even longer dreams. There’s no plot as such and I would say no resolution, although Frits does make a minor concession to his mother at the end. (On New Year’s Eve, he humours her by drinking some cordial, which she had thought to be wine. Could this signal a truce on the home front?)

Yes, it’s bleak, bleaker still when you consider that it’s set during the festive season.  Frit’s loneliness smacks of desperation at times, buying 2 cinema tickets in the hope of finding someone to come with him.  But then, who can blame his friends for seeking the company of others? When he’s with them, Frits plays on their weak points, discussing their paleness, baldness, criminality, ad nauseam.  He’s a liar too. (Denying he had grassed up the petty thief Maurits.) I’d tag him as a wind-up merchant and avoid him.

And yet, he’s likely using attack as the best form of defence, to deflect from his own mania and distress.  Because this wasn’t an age of 24/7 entertainment on tap. How is a young man to pass the long dreary winter hours?   Books and radio will only go so far, when your father’s driving you completely round the twist with his slobby eating habits. Talking to Viktor,

“Affliction cometh forth”, Frits said in a solemn tone. …. “Porridge for dessert every evening .  My mother puts the sugar bowl on the table.  With a little spoon in it.   Everyone takes sugar from the pot with that little spoon.  What does my father do? He digs out the sugar with his own dessert spoon.  Still clean and unused, I’ll admit, but it drives me mad to see it, I’m going crazy!”

I must admit I chuckled there, and, in other places too.  For who has not been driven potty by a family member for something similar?

The human observation is sharp, the ennui palpable, and the dialogue entirely natural. Neither could Reve have found a more effective structure to stick the reader in a same rut as Frits.  Sam Garrett has, as ever, translated excellently.

To summarise, I can appreciate the literary merit of The Evenings, and I fully expect it to be a contender for the Man Booker International later in the year.  Though you won’t be suprised to hear that I don’t consider it the Best Dutch Novel of All Time. To that end I offer you this.

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imageSo here I am, regaining my sanity after the recent book-culling saga. What better way of relaxing into the pleasures of my own book collection than spending some time with a kindred spirit …

he picked up a book and stroked his finger lingeringly over its leather cover. She (Violet, his second wife) watched as he opened it and brought up the splayed yellowing pages to his nostrils. He slowly inhaled. It was sensual, her husband’s experience of books, the texture, the sweet or acrid colours, the feel of a rough, uncut page.

Well, yes to all that, I would say.  But Violet is a content person. She loves the processes of thought, the flight of imagination.

Is this a basic incompatibility that portends a bad end to their fairytale marriage?

I use that epithet advisedly because that’s the way it is.  Violet,  a friendless penniless orphan, marries her somewhat older Lord, a matter of months after he asks what she is reading.  She is transported to a country mansion with an extensive library.  A year later she is a mother, yet not content.  Her husband goes wandering at night and what is that book, dedicated to his first wife, that he keeps locked away in his safe?

Set in the pre-WWI Edwardian era, when well-off women at home didn’t have enough to do to keep themselves grounded,  Violet begins to obsess on these matters, gradually losing her grip on reality. Delusions follow which render her a risk to her child, and Archibald, as was the way back then, consigns her for treatment in the lunatic asylum.

So far, so reasonable.  Violet’s illness could all be explained nowadays as post-natal depression, couldn’t it? Archibald is nothing other than a caring husband ensuring the then best available treatment for his wife.  That perceived emotional emptiness is just that – a percepton, isn’t it? Thus does Violet justify her husband’s actions, but, while in the asylum, stories surface of his frequent visits and his cosy relationship with the doctors …..

Following her release, matters deteriorate when Archibald installs Clara as nurse-maid,  he continues his nocturnal wanderings and former inmates of the asylum begin to disappear.  That prescribed bottle of laudanum makes it impossible for Violet to distinguish between reality or paranoid delusion.  A second trip to the asylum is inevitable. Which, given the pattern of the first, bodes ill for Violet and the solution of the mystery.

However, Thompson ensures there is sufficient concrete evidence – including a brief glimpse of a macabre jigsaw with characters from the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen – for the reader to understand what Violet cannot.  That Lord Archibald Murray is no fairytale prince, but an Edwardian bluebeard, complete with trophy cabinet.  Not the literal room full of blood-spattered corpses but a trophy made possible by Edwardian practices of bookbinding.

Thompson is excellent at subverting reader expectations and tipping the world on its head.  And so that paragraph on the behaviour and habits of a fellow tactile bibliophile, quoted above, now makes me shudder. Not entirely sure I’m thanking her for that.

Mistress of slippiness and suggestion she may be,  but there are places where the brutality – be it of Violet’s treatment in the asylum or the murders and subsequent processing of the corpses  – is viscerally realistic.  However, in this short novel of 159 pages, such passages are never gratuitous, nor extended.  Recommended for non-squeamish lovers of fairytales retold.

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I don’t intend to do much prize-shadowing this year.  I intend to continue with my #gapyeartravel reading.   But when I saw the shortlist for the Costa Novel award (to be awarded later today) and realised I’d read most of it, what could I do but complete it and determine which novel would win, were I the sole judge?

If the usual rules hold true, the actual prize will probably go to the one I liked least.  Well, that would be Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I could not finish. It took far too long to slither anywhere, so at the half-way point I slithered elsewhere.  I would, however, award the physical object, Dust Jacket of the Year.  What a beauty!

Reading my review of O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place, I find I wasn’t dazzled by it either, though memory tells me that I enjoyed it more than my review would suggest.  Still I’m not going to overrule myself six months later.

Which leaves me to choose between Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End and Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata.  What a contest! Both authors have won the Costa Novel Award previously with  Barry’s The Secret Scripture going on to take the overall Book of The Year Award in 2008. That suggests that the  competition for Lizzy’s award is going to be a close-run thing.  And it is.  My decision will be reached as I write this post!

Let’s take them in alphabetical sequence.

Who would have expected Sebastian Barry to have written a Western? Not me, for sure and so finding myself transported back to the Wild West was the biggest surprise on the shortlist for me.  Barry is known for mining his family’s history, and so Thomas McNulty, the great-uncle who was involved in the Indian wars, makes his appearance in Days Without End.  Not much more is known about the real Thomas, so his tale of gradual transformation from Thomas to Thomasina, and his relationship with John Cole, is entirely fictional, written as a sympathetic response to the coming out of the author’s son.

The historical backdrop, however is anything but fictional, and Barry’s exploration of that ugly time is brutal and unflinching.  Thomas and John find themselves fighting in both the Indian Wars and the American Civil War.  Terms of engagement were different back then, and war crimes were frequent. Barry not afraid to show them. He also demonstrates where the white man could learn from the Native Indians in terms of generosity, compassion and a fluid understanding of gender issues.

Indeed it is the existence of the 19th century Native two spirits that lends credibility to the development of Thomasina.  Yet Barry pushes the plot too far in defence of a 21st century agenda – same sex marriage, adoption by gay couples, opening himself up to a justified charge of anachronism.

That said, Barry’s prose is in a class of its own.  In places, rough around the edges – Thomas isn’t an educated man; his narrative is at times matter-of-fact, at others full of unsentimental heartfelt emotion that brought tears to my eyes.  Descriptions of landscape that you can smell and touch.  Battles are related with an immediacy that have the reader standing sabre to sabre with him.  Simply breathtaking.

And so to The Gustav Sonata and perhaps the saddest character in the quartet of shortlisted novels.

Not that Gustav Perle realises his own sadness.  He suppresses it along with other needs contenting himself to empathise and cater for others.  It’s a pattern established from an early age by his widowed mother, embittered by the outcome of her marriage and the poverty of her widowhood,  and his rich, Jewish and talented school friend, Anton Zwiebel, who wishes to become a concert pianist but is too highly-strung to perform well under pressure.  In adulthood the pattern continues with Gustav becoming a hotellier, always catering for his guests, rather than developing a meaningful relationship of his own.  It’s not until late-middle age that Gustav finds a happy ending and becomes the person he always should have been. A bit of a spoiler there, but I was so happy for him.  Never has a fictional character deserved it more.

A sonata is a musical structure consisting of three main movements: exposition, development and recapitulation. Tremain structures her novel thus. The first section describes Gustav’s childhood in Matzlingen, Switzerland.  The second explains his mother’s embitterment, and, while it does nothing to endear her to the reader, it does explain why she impresses on Gustav the need  “to be like Switzerland. You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.”  The third section repeats many of the rifts of the previous sections though in different chords: the story of Gustav’s father’s heroism in helping refugee Jews from the viewpoint of his lover, Gustav’s continuing generosity to those who need his emotional support, and, finally the recognition of his own nature with some payback from those who have previously taken so much from him.

This is a very smooth and, in places, subtle read.  Tremain infers, frequently through repeated motifs, many drawn from the life and literature of Thomas Mann, who spent many years in exile in Switzerland on account of his Jewish wife.  In addition, the novel taught me things about Swiss history that I did not know.

Can I fault it in anyway?  Only in so far as the names of the main characters might be a subtlety too far.   An English reader would naturally not pronounce the final syllable of Gustav’s surname and would read it as Pearl.  He is, of course, an absolute gem.  Anton’s surname means Onion.  Correspondingly he is the cause of many tears and sorrows.

It’s a minor quibble, and certainly doesn’t stretch my credibility as far as some elements of Barry’s novel.  I’m sorry for that because Days Without End is the novel that bedazzled me while reading.  The Gustav Sonata grew on me while reviewing.  I think that its hidden depths  will better reward further readings. This last consideration tips the balance in Tremain’s favour. She would be the Costa 2016 novel winner if I were making the announcement tonight.

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imageAnd the award for the greatest villian of 2016 goes to ….

Well, there were a few around this year, weren’t there? But in purely fictional terms, there are two to choose from in Julie Myerson’s dual stranded The Stopped Heart: Eddie, the contemporary villain and James Dix, the Victorian one. That’s a bit of a spoiler as both men, at first appear to be knights in shining armour, but …

As for the eponymous stopped heart,  there are several candidates:

a) The contemporary couple, Mary and Graham Coles, who are grieving for their daughters, when they move from London to an old cottage in the Suffolk countryside, hoping for a fresh start

b) The person whose remains are found in their orchard

c) The reader.  Yes, indeed.  If you pick this one up, prepare for some harrowing emotion, heart-stopping suspense, graphic cruelty and violence and, in my case, heartbreak.  I really, really needed those human remains to be someone else.

Something awful has happened to the Coles’s daughters.  What exactly isn’t revealed until a long way into the novel but there are echoes of their fate in the story told by 14-year old Eliza relating to events at the cottage 150 years previously.  In the days when James Dix arrived and made himself indispensable as a farmhand, and as a lothario to the countrygirls, including Eliza.  Remember she’s only 14. Old enough in those days.  However,  relations with James Dix are dangerous, and we’re not just talking about pregnancy.

Eliza’s sister, Lottie, never takes to James.  In fact, she has premonitions about what is to come, and she is also able to see future inhabitants of the cottage.  She sees Mary Coles’s shadow – the suggestion being that the weight of Mary’s grief bleeds through the fabric of time into the past. And that bleeding is reciprocal.

It’s an uncanny idea, and one I’m not comfortable with, but then this is an intensely uncomfortable read.  Not only due to the unrelenting darkness of its main theme, the impossibility of keeping children safe, but also to the insistence of the author to confront the issues eyes-wide-open and take us not only into her character’s lives, but actually into their skins. The structure too is a challenge with switches between past and present signalled only by an empty line, and they are irritatingly fast and furious, particularly at the start.  (A textual representation of time bleeding, I suppose.) Thankfully though, one narrative is 1st person, the other 3rd, and as the stories established themselves, I settled to the pace and found myself as in thrall to Myerson’s storytelling as Eliza was to James Dix.

I realise I haven’t said much about the contemporary villain, Eddie.  Purposely, as I’d like to know if Myerson wrong-footed other readers as she did me.  (Though with hindsight, all the clues are there.) Not that this makes him the villain of the year.  On that score, James Dix stands head and shoulders above the rest.   (He’s a red-headed Victorian, so you know he’s a bad ‘un.) Never have I wished retribution and vengeance on a character so strongly. However I saw the author’s expression when I expressed those wishes at AyeWrite in March.  (I hadn’t finished the novel at that point and, yes, that’s how long ago I read this and I just can’t forget it.) I knew then, justice isn’t the point.  Myerson has drawn a portrait of pure evil, and, the grim news is that evil sometimes gets away with it.

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I haven’t revealed my books of the year in gradual fashion before, but when I started compiling the list for 2016, I realised that I still have a goodly number to review.  (Reviewing falling victim to time constraints at literary festival time.) So I shall spend this week putting that right, starting with the short story collection of the year, the hysterically funny read of the year and the best first liner of the year. Contender for my book of the year? Most definitely, although I have yet to make my final decision. (It is a close run thing.)

imageLet’s roll back to the first line of the first story in American Housewife, entitled What I Do All Day.

Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.

It tells you all you need to know about the housewives in this collection.  These ladies are sassy, full of attitude, and not at all ashamed of their status in life. In fact, you could say they are rich housewives on steroids!  As Ellis said at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, “I became a housewife, and realised it was a really good gig.” Taking inspiration from the author, none of her creations want out of their lot in life, and why should they? The home is their castle, and let no-one mistake this, they are the queens of their castles and they will do anything, and I mean anything, to defend them.

In fact, The Wainscoting War is a literal turf war over the decor in the common hallway. When Angela Chastain-Peters moves in, she decides she would like to remodel the hall and advises her new neighbour of such in her first email, ostensibly a thank-you note for a welcome gift. In actuality an opening salvo in the war for dominance. Well how would you interpret the following?

Hi neighbour! Thank you for the welcome gift basket you lefy outside our apartment door. My husband  and I don’t eat pineapples … But we appreciate the gesture.  We gave the pineapples to the super, who said he’d ask his wife to ask you for your recipe for pineapple-glazed ham.  Apparently you make one every Easter that makes the elevator shaft smell like a barbeque. WOW!

The resulting battle between neighbours is laid bare in the email trail that follows.  Petty and catty as it may be, there is a deadly intent in Angela Chastain-Peters that is not to be thwarted.

I’ll mention just one more story in detail, otherwise I’ll find myself re-reading the whole book. In Hello! Welcome to Book Club, a new member is welcomed by the hostess, Mary Beth. The name is a pseudonym, a book club name. At first, this seems like a quaint idea, but as Mary-Beth introduces the other members and their reading tastes, something darker and altogether more desperate emerges. For Mary-Beth is as indiscreet as they come revealing the histories and secrets of each woman.  It’s a one-way conversation. To give you a flavour

Marjorie loves celebrity memoirs. She likes to have Book Club read about beautiful people who remain beautiful people despite life’s little challenges such as bankruptcy, infidelity, alcoholism, and infertility.

You’ve had three out of four of these challenges, haven’t you, dear?

That turns out to be true and not having experienced the 4th is the reason for the new recruit’s initiation into Book Group, because she is there to serve a purpose ….

Contemporary culture such as celebrity reality TV and child beauty pageants are pilloried.  Ellis’s satire is as ruthless as that of her narrators. Laugh out loud funny in places and yet merciless in revealing the darker edges and emptiness beneath exterior surfaces. Other stories (Southern Lady Code and How to be a Grown-Ass Lady) are lists, comprised entirely of tweets from the author’s twitter account @whatidoallday. The final story is one of a writer battling writer’s block.  Interestingly this is something Ellis has struggled with herself.  She has said that becoming a housewife helped her find her voice.  Who would have thought that the 4-letter words I hate – dust, wash, iron – could be such fertile ground for the imagination?

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Helen Ellis at EIBF 21.08.2016

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Translated from Dutch by Richard Hujing

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Bottle-dungeon St Andrew’s Castle

One of the most chilling things I have ever seen is the bottle dungeon at St Andrew’s Castle in Fife.  Impossible to capture in a photo without a very wide-angled lens (as you can see on the right), but imagine this.  There is a hole in the ground with a 30-ft fall to the rocky bottom. It is pitch black and you are about to be thrown into it, knowing that even if you survive your inevitable injuries, you will never come out alive because there will be no food or water provision.  Your fate is to die in pain of hunger and thirst surrounded by the dead and dying who have preceded you.

imageI had nightmarish visions about what that must be like, and so, when I came to Bel Campo’s story in the recently released Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, I was amazed to find those nightmares on paper.

The story begins as the unnamed warrior is cast into the dark pit, not knowing what awaits him there.  Man-eating animals perhaps?  As his eyes accustom to the gloom, he discovers he is in a human pit full of vanquished peoples, in various states of decay.  Noone is moving, noone is speaking.  Each man is resignedly undergoing the decline of the body.

What is there left to do, except to cling to life for as long as possible, as an act of independence against the conquering nation?  To reminisce on the sweetness of life, before it was darkened by war and ethnic cleansing.

That was the stuff of my nightmares but Bel Campo had even more horrific things in store.  For our prisoner’s enemies are not content with allowing their prisoners a dignified death.  Deeper humiliations await.  They wish to further divide and conquer, to reduce their prisoners to the level of animals, to strip them of all vestiges of humanity.  This they do by staging what I can only describe as a diabolical banquet. No further details here, but I was reminded of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as I read ever more wide-eyed.  The temptations of the flesh leading only to death and damnation for both conquerors and conquered ….

… and yet, in the midst of this hell, the unnamed protagonist manages to find a kind of grace in the form of true love. What a twist!

Belcampo’s story is as vivid and visual as a painting, and it is a shame that this is the only story of his that I can find in English.  An admirer of E T A Hoffman, this nom-de-plume is taken from one of Hoffmann’s characters, which suggests that there is is a fantastically gothic oeuvre just waiting to be discovered by Hoffmann’s many English-reading fans.  If only someone would translate it.

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imageTranslated from German by Simon Pare.

Nominated for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award by libraries in Hungary and USA

It’s not often that I allow my dislike of a main character to interfere with my enjoyment of a novel, but there’s always an exception that proves the rule.  So here we go. I took a strong dislike to Manon and not even her tragic fate redeemed her.  It proved an insurmountable hurdle for a novel that pivots on the love of its main protagonist for this woman.  But let me start at the beginning.

NOTE: This review will contain mild spoilers, so reader beware! 

Jean Perdu is the owner of the little Paris bookshop in question, a book barge.  Actually it’s not a bookshop; it’s a literary apothecary, because Perdu will not sell a book to a customer unless it is right for that person, and, he can,  just by looking at a person, prescribe the correct bookish medicine. Like many doctors, however, he’s not good at self-medication. His problem? His lover of five years, the afore-mentioned Manon, left him suddenly without a word.  Some months after her disappearance, she sent a letter, which Perdu threw into a drawer and never opened.  For the next 21 years, Jean Perdu is a lost soul, locked away emotionally and cut-off from the joys of life.

The arrival of the recently divorced Catherine into his apartment block leads to the letter resurfacing and his eventually reading it.  What he reads devastates him further. The letter is a plea from Manon to her lover to come to her – she is dying.

And so 21 years too late, he unmoors his boat and sets off for Provence to visit Manon’s grave and ask for redemption.  The complication is that he is going to have to visit her husband, Luc, who knew of Perdu’s existence, and married her nevertheless.   Both men were seemingly accepting that one man was not enough for the love of their respective lives.  (Really? Not in my world. Besides, at one moment, I’m asked to accept that Manon is the most wonderful lover in the world.  The next she’s leaving again to return to  the other man, knowing the hurt she is inflicting.  How selfish is that?  You see my problem with her?)

The journey he undertakes is a heart-warming adventure back into the land of the living.   Accompanied by the young author, Max Jordan, who is struggling with a severe case of second novel syndrome, the people he meets along the way provide moments of scintillating literary discussion, high comedy, deep empathy, and generally breathe life and love back into the emotional corpse.  In stages –  as  illuminated by Hermann Hesse’s poem of the same name.

The text is both emotional and sensual, and, putting aside the issues I have with the love triangle and the general sainthood of Luc Bisset, Manon’s husband, in places quite touching. But, in others, overblown.  Particularly that redemption scene.  For incurable romantic mystics.   Not for me.

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