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Two years ago I met Corinna and Claudia, the ladies from the German cultural blog Nachtgedanken at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  You must come to the Leipzig Book Fair, they exhorted.  It’s so different from any other festival.  You’ll enjoy it, they said.  They were right.  It is, and I did.  What they didn’t tell me is that it is also ex-haust-ing.

Leipzig Book Fair is the second largest in Germany.  It is a trade fair but also one for readers.  Perhaps mainly for readers. Definitely mainly for readers. Author events take place at almost every publisher stall; there are special event spaces in each exhibition hall; tv and radio stations have their own areas with special programmes broadcasting all day, every day.  But more than that, there are readings all over the city, a great number of which are free!  The Book Fair is one part of a bigger celebration of reading  – Leipzig Liest (Leipzig is reading) – and given the numbers that flocked to the exhibition halls, that was certainly true. Reading and dressing-up – 105,000 visitors in 4 days to the Manga-Comic-Con in Hall 1 alone; most of whom came dressed as their favourite fantasy figure. (Instagram feed here.)

I was in Leipzig for the four days of the fair; two of which I spent in the exhibition centre, the other two recuperating exploring the new-to-me city.  The main issue for me was the lack of seating.  Events are so popular and the cubed seating so scarce. It doesn’t matter if you are in plenty of time for your author event.  These run back-to-back every half-hour so that you need to be strategically placed to pounce – and I do mean pounce – if you are to stand a chance of resting your weary pins.  There is obviously a knack to surviving the fair – not attempting consecutive events for 6 hour shifts, making use of the break-out areas, and leaving through the correct entrance, avoiding (what felt like) a 2-mile walk to the tram, for instance.  I’ll bear these things in mind for next time, but as this was my first visit, I was the kid in the proverbial sweetie-shop, wanting to see as many authors as I could, given the increasing rarity of German literature events in Scotland.

I saw a fair few and quite a bit of Matthias Énard as well! The Prix Goncourt winning Compass was awarded the Leipzig Book Prize for European Undertanding in the opening ceremony and you might say, Day 1 was Matthias Énard day.  He was the first author I heard speak and he kept popping up throughout the day.  As you will see. Enjoy the slide show from the comfort of your own seat. No elbows needed to claim it, I hope!

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I also attended two of the Leipzig Liest events: the first,  a reading of murderous tales out in the suburbs at Schkeuditz Library.  Bernd Köstering, whose Weimar Trilogy I have reviewed was there; the second a reading in the Egyptian Museum by Titus Müller, one of Corinna’s and Claudia’s favourite historical authors.  And I must say, his Der Tag X is now a must-read.  I enjoyed both of these events immensely – for a start, there were seats ….. and no background noise.  I could relax and simply enjoy.  Note to self – include more of these Leipzig Liest events next time.

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Bernd Köstering (left) Titus Müller (right)

 

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The chances are you’ve seen this video by Tribes.  The counter is currently showing 44 million views, but, as it is simply the most powerful message I’ve seen recently about the futility of war, given the current predilection for (what will hopefully be only another round of) sabre-rattling, I’m including it here.

Estimating the number of deaths in all those conflicts is an impossible task, the numbers from World War Two are mind-boggling enough. But each of those 80 million deaths was an individual tragedy, and it’s on the individual level that we feel the pain more acutely.

I left Heinrich Böll as he was leaving high school entering the book trade, seeking ways to avoid becoming another cog in the Nazi machine. In the years between then and the publication of Where were you, Adam? in 1951, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. He survived 4 wounds and typhoid fever to distill those experiences into this short and powerful novella.

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From The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll – Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

With no preamble Böll pitches the reader onto the Eastern Front. Hungary 1944. The war is lost and the German army is retreating from the advance of the Russians. Except the words defeat and retreat are forbidden – all movement must be packaged as redeployment. Call it what they will, the horrors and absurdities of war still prevail.  Generals knowingly send men without enough firepower into battle to buy time.  Amidst the carnage, Nazis still have resource and energy to clear the ghettos.

So much for the big picture. Individual stories break down abstractions and generalisations and this is where Böll’s story excels. He relates the story of the German defeat through a collage of experiences: those of the different ranks in the Wehrmacht together with representatives the civilian population. Each episode is depicted realistically with sufficient detail to engage this civilian reader’s senses and emotions without overdoing it. (Unlike this one.)

The first episode begins  with the general inspecting his battalion shortly before sending them into battle:

First came a face, large, yellow, tragic, moving past their lines; that was the general. The general looked tired. The face with puffy blue shadows under the malaria-yellow eyes, the slack, thin-lipped mouth of a man dogged by bad luck, moved hurriedly past the thousand men. … Each of the three times three hundred and thirty-three men into whose faces he looked was aware of a strange feeling: sorrow, pity, fear, and a secret fury.  Fury at this war, which had already gone on far too long …..

Those emotions were key to my reading because in the course of the 134 pages, I felt all of those (although there’s nothing secret about my fury).  For while the German army is staging its retreat – sorry, redeployment – the body count still rises.  And these men – conscripts, in the main – are destined to fall.  But they aren’t just statistics.  Their backstories render them human and in some cases, more vulnerable because of a chronic health condition.  Another man is a wine merchant, conscripted and sent by the whim of some delusional maniac to source 50 bottles of the finest Hungarian wine.  Amidst the madness there are fine examples of courage: doctors and medical orderlies who remain with patients in post-operative recovery to give them a chance of survival.

Civilian life is represented by the Hungarian landlady who quarters the  German troops. She makes a good living out of the war and is sorry when her time of bounty is over.  Conversely there is the Catholic Jewish teacher, Ilona, who makes an unwise choice to visit her parents in the ghetto.

The episodic structure is held together by the figure of Feinhals, whose movements take us from one story to the next.  Wounded in the opening battle (much to his relief) , he is taken to the medical station, the location of the second and third chapters.  Post recovery he meets Ilona, but their love affair is short-lived as he receives further redeployment orders.  And so it continues with increasing absurdity and meaningless sacrifice until the end of the war when Feinhals is decommissioned and on the threshold of his parent’s home.

I’m struggling to identify the most absurd moment of them all.  Could that be poor Fleck’s death who dies on the battlefield, pierced in the chest by one of those 50 wine bottles.

“In the chest?”

“That’s right – he must have been kneeling over his suitcase.”

“Contrary to regulations”, said the second lieutenant.

How macabre is that?

But there is further absurdity to follow including a bridge that is rebuilt only to be destroyed by the builders the day after completion.  You couldn’t make it up, and I suspect Böll didn’t.  As for meaninglessness, the apex is reached in the last chapter, in the last gasp of the war.  It is an incident that is well-signalled, and has been subtly foreshadowed throughout. Nevertheless it resurrected all those emotions highlighted in the first chapter.   It also made this reader raise a white flag in the face of human stupidity.

Five_Stars.GIF

 

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The first book of 2017

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Today I am celebrating the reclamation of my reading sofa with an illustrated anthology of writing about the pleasures of reading. The German title translates as Read and Let Read. Similarities between the the reader on the dust jacket and myself are entirely coincidental, though as I can slouch once more in my reading nook, I am as happy as the proverbial ….

I hope 2017 proves to be an excellent reading year for us all

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There’s a surprising correlation between my 2016 reading statistics and this list.

  • 31% of my reading was in German or translated from German giving 33% of the following list.
  • 48% of my reading was in translation. 50% of this list is.

There are, however, a couple of surprising discrepancies too.

  • 70% of my reading was by new-to-me authors as are 11 of the 12 titles in this list. That’s an amazing 92%!
  • Male:female reading ratio was 56:44.  In my favourite picks it is 25:75.

The conclusion is, I think, that to increase my reading pleasures I must read more new-to-me women authors in translation. I’ll test that theory out in 2017.

But for now, here are my picks of 2016 presented mainly in chronological sequence of reading, to  form a mini-journal of 2016 – a life-changing year for me. Links are to my full reviews.

January: I began what was meant to an alphabetical Adventures Through the TBR reading project. I didn’t get very far, never consciously moving onto B, but I did read 15 titles associated one way or the other with the letter A. The Austrian novel I Called Him Necktie was my favourite of these and also The Most Moving Read of the Year.

February: Time for my annual Peirenathon and the magnificently dark and cruel the Norwegian The Looking-Glass Sisters became my favourite Peirene to-date and Gothic Read of the Year.

March: Time for AyeWrite and Julie Myerson’s The Stopped Heart delivered The Villain of the Year.

June: Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days was the hottest and fieriest read of my #20booksofsummer and her Home Secretary takes my Slimiest Politician of the Year award.  (No mean undertaking given the events of 2016.)

August: Month of the Year: I retired just in time for the Edinburgh Book Festival. So with time on my hands I read lots of great books, 3 of which make this list.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions roared into my consciousness to become the  Zeitgeist Read of the Year.

David Tennant’s reading performances of Cressida Cowell’s How To Train A Dragon series had me in fits of giggles driving to and from Edinburgh, confirming my inner child and my continuing delight in all things alliterative – not just my blog’s name.  They are my Audio Books of the Year.

October: I’ve spent two of the last three months of the year on the road, aligning reading with my destinations. The Munich Art Hoard was a fascinating glimpse into the unexpected moral and legal ambiguities that continue to exist around treasures stolen by the Nazis and taught me to look a more closely at the labels in art galleries. I had an entirely different experience that previous ones when I visited the Städel in Frankfurt after reading it. It is my #gapyeartravel Companion of the Year.

November: From an English book about Germany to a German book about Scotland – #germanlitmonth delivered Fontane’s Beyond the Tweed, a travelogue of his journey around the most famous bits of Scotland in 1858. (They are still the most famous bits btw so the book can still be used as a travel guide.) My Travel Book of the Year and the only book on this list by an author I have read before.

December: I may have been avoiding the Scottish winter in Gran Canaria, but I was deep into my #dutchlitautumn. The Boy is my favourite from among my choices for this and my Psychological Read of the Year.  It would make an excellent book group read; the mother being sympathetically tragic – or is she?

And so to my top 3.  In reverse order:

Back to August, the Edinburgh Book Festival and Helen Ellis’s Southern gothic and hysterically funny short-story collection American Housewife. Some of these ladies could given Myerson’s villain of the year a run for his money. Winner of my Short Story Collection and Comic Book of the Year awards.

In February I read my Most Anticipated Book of the Year.  Volker Weidemann’s The Summer Before the Dark lived up to expectations and resulted in the Gush of the Year.  I even read it twice, the second time in German, for Book Group at the Goethe Institute, where there was a hot debate about whether to categorise it as fiction or non-fiction.  Actually it’s neither. I suppose that makes it my Faction Book of the Year and, because I read it twice in 2016,  my Reread of the Year. It’s also the book that added more books than any other to my TBR  and started a whole new reading stream, making it the Most Influential Read of the Year.

So why is it not my Book of the Year?

In another year, it would have been, but in May  Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar came out of nowhere.  I picked it up to read along with TJ at My Book Strings and was not looking forward it at all.  Holocaust novels not being my reading material of choice. 7 months later and I can only summarise the experience in one word – revelatory – and that’s what makes this the Book Blogger Recommendation of the Year, Classic of the Year and Lizzy’s Book of 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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imageI have every intention of taking part in the 1947 Club, only I’m not able to do so in real time; i.e in the week hosts Kaggsy and Simon have put aside for it.  What I can do, however, is recommend a couple of brilliant reads for anyone who is looking for something exceptional to read this week.  Both authors were added to my completist reading list on the basis of their 1947 efforts. Links are to my reviews.

1) Hans Fallada – Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone

2) Patrick Hamilton – The Slaves of Solitude

I have also reviewed Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (but I didn’t like it much).

The book originally published in 1947 that I intend reading before the end of the year is forthcoming from Pushkin Press and will be published on 3.11.2016.   In a 2002 poll, members of the Society for Dutch Literature ranked The Evenings first among works since 1900 in the Dutch canon.  Once upon a time I might have read it in the original language, but I can’t do that anymore.  I’ll just have to wait patiently for this little beauty.  (I might even review it during German Literature Month in November.  Ssssssshhhh – don’t tell Caroline.)

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… while I attend to other priorities.  Needs must.

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