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Mengstrasse 4, Lübeck

Earlier this year I recorded my trip to Theodor Storm’s home town of Husum, but I never told you what happened after that.  I travelled from the North Sea coast to the Baltic Coast.  To Lübeck, the home town of Thomas Mann, where a visit to Mengstrasse 4, the former home of Mann’s grandparents, is obligatory for German litlovers.  Why? Because that is where the Heinrich and Thomas Mann Centre is situated.  Well, that may be it’s official name, but it is better known as the Buddenbrooks House, being the house Mann immortalised in his debut novel.

I made a beeline for the second floor. For it is dedicated to the novel, Buddenbrooks, in a way that is, as far as I am aware wholely unique.  Two rooms are presented as the Buddenbrooks’s sitting and dining rooms.

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The Sitting Room

They were sitting in the “land-scape room” on the first floor of the rambling old house in Meng Street, which the firm of Johann Buddenbrook had acquired some time since, though the family had not lived in it for long.  The room was hung with heavy resilient tapestries put up  in such a way that they stood well out from the walls. They were woven in soft tones to harmonise with the carpet, and they depicted idyllic landscapes in the style of the eighteenth century, with merry vine-dressers, busy husbandmen and gaily beribboned shepherdesses who sat beside crystal streams with spotless lambs in their laps or exchanged kisses with amorous shepherds,  These scenes were usually lighted by a pale yellow sunset to match the yellow coverings on the white enammelled furniture and the yellow silk curtains at the two windows.

For the size of the room, the furniture was rather scant.  A round table, its slender legs decorated with fine lines of gilding, stood, not in front of the sofa, but by the wall opposite the little harmonium, on which lay a flute case, some stiff arm chairs were ranged in a row round the walls, there was a sewing table by the window, and a flimsy ornamented writing-desk laden with knick-knacks. (Translation H T Lowe-Porter)

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The Dining Room

The tapestries in this room had a sky-blue background, against which, between slender columns, white figures of gods and goddesses stood out with plastic effect,  The heavy red damask window-curtains were drawn; stiff, massive sofas in red damask stood ranged against the walls, and in each corner stood a tall gilt candelabrum with eight flaming candles, besides those in silver sconces on the table.  Above the heavy sideboard, on the wall opposite the landscape room, hung a large painting of an Italian bay, the misty blue atmosphere of which was most effective in the candle-light. (Translation H T Porter Lowe)

Look more closely and you will see individual artifacts tagged with the the numbers of the pages in which they make individual appearances if you will.  Unfortunately the labels don’t detail the relevant edition.  Still I’ll include the photos here, for anyone who may be reading Buddenbrooks at the moment.  Let me know when you track down the relevant passage.

The permanent interactive exhibition on the ground floor details the life and times of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and made me understand that Buddenbrooks, like many debut novels, contains many autobiographical elements.  For instance, the Mann family originated from Rostock, and many of Hanno Buddenbrook’s experiences were based on those of the author, such as his torment during his school days at the Katharineum.

The museum’s mission statement is to encourage readers to pick up read or re-read the works of the Manns.  I can report a case of mission achieved, because right now, I am deep into what must be my 5th or 6th reading of Buddenbrooks, and  I am loving every word all over again.

It’s where my journey during German Literature Month VII will begin.  Have you made any plans yet?

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Doesn’t time fly?  It seems only two minutes ago since we were celebrating GLM VI.  So quickly has this year gone, that I’ve still to create the GLM VI index.  (Which I will do sometime in October as I will be without wi-fi during the second half of September.) However, I digress, let’s get the flags out for GLM VII!

And start with some great news.

Caroline, who has had a recent struggle with her health, has recovered sufficiently to co-host with me once more.  So both our blogs, Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life will be dedicated to German literature during November.

Will you be dusting down some neglected tomes from your bookshelves? Reading more from a favourite author or treating yourself to some newly translated works?  There’s a lot to celebrate in German Literature this year: the Theodor Storm bi-centennial, the Heinrich Böll centennial, the 3 German titles on the longlist for the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.  It’s hard to know where to start, and impossible to fit it all in. So Caroline and I have decided to let you meander through the trails of German literature wherever and in whatever fashion you may wish (and perhaps, between us, we’ll cover it all.)

The whole month will be read as you please, with two readalongs for those who enjoy social reading.

On 15th November, the date of the Warwick Prize award, I will be discussing Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of A Polar Bear.

On 29th November, Caroline will discuss Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns as part of her War and Literature series.

There is no obligation to participate in the readalongs.  As ever,  the only rule for German Literature Month is to simply enjoy reading something originally written in German.  A novel, a play, a poem. Literary non-fiction, even.  Blog about it. Tweet about it. Review on goodreads or any other review site of your choice.  Just let the world know about the treasures to be found in German Literature (and let us know about it also on a special link that will be made available on November 1st).

In years past support for German Literature Month has been phenomenal, and the event is now a true highlight of our reading calendar.  Will GLM VII match its predecessors? It will if you join us.  Will you?

IMG_0109Winner of the 2014 Akutagawa Prize

Translated from Japanese by Polly Barton

From one beautiful cover to the next – Pushkin Press certainly know how to package their goods!  But. While The Disappearances had me page-turning from the start, I can’t say I found Spring Garden so rivetting. But once I accepted that this is a quiet novel and a slow burner, I began to appreciate it a little more, even if I never really warmed to it.

Taro, a young divorcé,  who has decided that he can no longer share his space, lives alone in an emptying apartment block in Setagaya, a middle class suburb of Tokyo.  The landlord has decided to demolish the building and sell the land for redevelopment.  Taro is one of the last renters in the block.  He has no friends, and spends his time, when not working, lounging on the floor brooding about his recently deceased father.  The ever increasing void around him doesn’t perturb him unduly.  He’ll find somewhere new to live when his lease expires.

One day he notices one of his remaining neighbours spying on the sky-blue house opposite the apartment block. A casual friendship develops between him and Nishi, the older women “spy”.  Her fixation on the house began years before when she found a coffee table book entitled “Spring Garden” with this house and the life lived by its then inhabitants as its subject.  The life seemed ideal, the couple happy, and yet they, a famous commercial producer and his actress wife, divorced only a couple of years after the publication of the book. Nishi has analysed the photographs for clues as to their unhappiness to the nth degree, but does not understand. Her objective is to see the whole house from the inside. When the opportunity arises, she takes it, but needs Taro’s help to complete her quest in its entirety.

I use the word quest purposefully, because to Nishi, it is just that, even if it doesn’t seem much of an adventure to me.  And so much of this novel seemed off kilter in other ways.   There is a mystery surrounding the celebrity couple, that turns out to be a non-mystery.  Those remaining in the apartment block – particularly Taro – seem stuck in a state of permanent stasis. Are they paralysed by the non-stop change of the city in which they live?

Because I have to say there doesn’t seem to be much character development or even story-arc.  That’s not to say that there aren’t character studies.  It’s just that they didn’t run particularly deep for me, and I couldn’t decide whether Taro was grief-stricken or simply lacksadaisical. Perhaps the objective of the piece is to simply to document the realities of urban life in contemporary Tokyo; loneliness, chance encounters and the resulting fleeting friendships, the temporariness of our place in the world. This latter point emphasised by fine observations from nature.

Spring Garden works on this thematic level.  But it falls apart when I start looking at details.  What is the purpose of that change of narrator 4/5ths of the way through the novel, for instance.  To help us see Taro through sympathetic eyes, those of his sister? To endear him to us?  It didn’t work.  And as for that plot device in the final scene in the Spring Garden house.  My eyes rolled. (Honestly I remember using it myself in a primary school story.)

Given that Spring Garden won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, I will assume that Japanese tastes differ widely from mine, and that I am blind to this story’s virtues. I wonder, though, whether the same would be true of the other titles in Pushkin Press’s Japanese novella series.  Has anyone read them?  Are they worth picking up?


This read, a rare fail, completes my Round the World With Pushkin Press reading project.  Or rather, it would have done, had I not had so much fun visiting 10 countries on my first circuit, that I’ve decided to add a second!

Next stop: Australia

Kate has opened this month’s journey with the bestselling Wild Swans by Jung Chang. Everyone was reading this in the 1990s – everyone except me, that is,

Neither have I read John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things – also set in China.  It won the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize in 2015, and is the only winner I have yet to read. I intend to do so before the end of this year.

Talking of completist reading, I have only one book remaining from this year’s Walter Scott Historical Fiction shortlist – Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist.

The thought of vanishing leads me to The Disappearances, an excellent young adult novel recently published by Pushkin Press, with one of the most beautiful covers of 2017.

I do love a beautiful book, and each year I make a point of determining the most beautiful book in the Edinburgh Book Festival Bookshop.  A copy of this year’s winner made its way home with me a fortnight ago. That would be The Sketchbook of Edinburgh.

Most of my book shopping is done in Edinburgh, and when I’m looking for something special – like a copy of the Moxon Tennyson – I head for the second-hand bookshop paradise in the West Port. The Pre-Raphaelite woodcuts are what make this edition so special. Here are a couple graced with the presence of the real Lizzie.

Lizzie was, of course, the original stunner, but there were others – Effi, Fanny, Jane, et al, and in Wives and Stunners, Henrietta Garnett, tells their stories.  Men may have created the most famous paintings, but where would they have been without their muses?

August 2017 Wrap-Up

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Books Read August 2017

August 2017 was a very busy month during which I attended 11 of the 17 days of Edinburgh Book Festival (should have been 12 but a puncture put paid to that), read 10 books (see footnote), listened to 2 audio books, and devised a #WITMonth 10 German Books you must read with Tony at Tony’s Reading List.  Interestingly my tweet for that became the most popular tweet I ever made!

It’s a wonder I blogged anything at all!  But I was very productive!

Women in Translation Month Posts
1) Summary of Books Read August 2016-July 2019 
2) 10 German Books You Must Read
3) Die My Love – Ariana Harwicz (Review.  Also for #spanishlitmonth)

Edinburgh International Book Festival Posts
4) The Martian Chronicles: Reading Workshop Review (This was July’s Book of the Month)
5) The Man Booker International Prize Edition Review of 3 events plus David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar.
6) The Post-Apocalyptic Edition Review of the event with Louise Welsh and Heinz Helle with thoughts on their novels No Dominion and Euphoria
7) The Shortest History of Germany Edition Review of James Hawes event and book of the same title.  (June’s Book of the Month)
8) The Borgias According to Sarah Dunant Review of my favourite event at this year’s festival and her two fantastic historical novels Blood and Beauty and In the Name of the Family.

Just Because
9) Six Degrees of Separation: From Pride and Prejudice to New Boy
10) The Disappearances – Emily Bain Murphy Review

I wish I could blog like this every month, but other things have a way of interfering sometimes.  (And September is most likely going to be the proof of that!)

August 2017 was a remarkable month in another way also.  For the first time this year, my book of the month was written by a woman! Though not the woman in translation. Ariana Harwicz’s novel is outstanding, but her novel was trumped by the sheer pleasure afforded me by Emily Bain Murphy’s young adult novel, The Disappearances.  It really was the book I had to force myself to put down!

2017 Reading Statistics
YTD 73 Read, 8 Audio Books, 8 DNF
August 2017 10 Read 2 Audio Books 1 DNF

Footnote: Yes, I know there are 11 books in the picture, but I actually listened to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, whilst driving to and fron Edinburgh,

IMG_0090Named Best Argentinian Novel of 2012 by the daily La Nacíon.

Nominated for the Edinburgh Book Festival First Novel award

Translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff

So the thing about Edinburgh Book Festival is the discovery of new-to-me books in their pop-up bookshop … and there were many this year.  (I’ll tell you all about the ones that came home with me when Rossetti isn’t looking.) A number of these started their journey to my library from the shelves dedicated to the Edinburgh Book Festival First Novel Award.

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Edinburgh First Novel Award Bookshelf 13.08.2017

The contents of these shelves change throughout the festival.  Harwicz’s novel wasn’t there on day one.  I think I read a tweet saying copies arrived about 3 hours before her event. I wasn’t at her event either, but I decided to read this novel first from my #edbookfest purchases so that I could sneak in a last minute review for both #spanishlitmonth and #WITmonth.

Why did I buy it? Title, title, title.  I imagined some kind of schizophrenic virago snarling the first word, then, after sticking the knife in, caressing her victim with soft sweet nothings ….

Well, not being a psychologist, I can’t confirm whether the female protagonist is schizophrenic, sociopathic or even psychopathic, but she is definitely unhinged, nay, severely unhinged …

and, because this novel is written in 1st person, there were times when I was unhinged myself!  I couldn’t recognise the world at all through her eyes.  At first there was no common ground, just weird, animalistic behaviour complete with sexual fantasies that turned out (I think) to be anything but fantasy. But gradually, an external reference, an expression of resentment, and I realised that this is a world seen through the prism and alienation of severe post-natal depression.

The woman’s story can only be put together retrospectively as Harwicz throws the reader right into her crisis. First sentence:

I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular.

There’s the knife of my imaginings, but it made me question which love was to die.  Because with a title like that, something’s going to end badly.  And Harwicz kept me guessing.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the woman’s story but she is an educated woman, now living in the countryside with her husband and son.  Bored.   In a downward spiral that is accelerating. The birth of her son precipitating, if not completing, an absolute loss of self.

It’s not easy on her, her husband (who really does try to help her), her son (for whom I was truly afeared) or for the reader.  That 1st person narrative – it’s not a stream of consciousness, more a stream of existence.  Reality, fantasy, insanity, hallucination, smidgeons of logical thought, blended into an unchronological narrative.  Challenging.  I’d say exhilarating (if the subject matter wasn’t so dark.) Told in short, sharp passages, meaning the reader can come up for air, even if the protagonist and her family cannot.

A book that will reward a second reading, if I dare brave its intensity again.


Die, My Love is one of the first of titles to be published by Charco Press, a new publisher based in Edinburgh, whose remit is to “select authors whose works feed the imagination, challenge perspective and spark debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors whose works have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.  Until now,”

Not everything they publish will be for me, but I will definitely keep a close eye on what they do.

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Be still my beating heart! Sarah Dunant remembers the romantic historical novels that sparked her interest in history.

Think of 3 adjectives to describe Lucretia Borgia. Now hold those thoughts while I describe Sarah Dunant in 3 adjectives.

Earthy, funny, cool.

This was by far my favourite event of the 2017 festival, and that was, in no small part, down to the author’s engaging style – she really connected with the audience, talking to us not to the chair.  She had us eating out of her hands in no time.

Of Lucretia Borgia’s reputation, she said: “I started my research and within about 15 minutes, I thought, hang on someone’s done a number on her.  This is a classic example of the victors writing history.  But if Lucretia has been maligned, then who else has received the same treatment?  And isn’t it about time someone set the record straight, instead of perpetuating the myth?”

And that is the purpose of her two novels, Blood and Beauty and In the Name of the Father.   It is an attempt to rehabilitate the Borgias, except that sometimes that is impossible.

On Rodrigo, Pope Alexander VI, Lucretia’s father: “I can’t rehabilitate him. Rodrigo is bad news, but he must be judged by the times he lived in.  He was a Spaniard, an interloper, not an insider in the Vatican court.  He had to be a consummate politician to get to the top.  His behaviour was no different from everyone else, except that he did everything in technicolour.  Rodrigo was a big man of insatiable appetites – that’s why Jeremy Irons (who played him in the recent Sky series) is too thin in many ways.”

“His Catholic church was corrupt but don’t forget that that corruption financed the creation of some of the greatest Renaissance art.  ”

Rodrigo loved all his illegitimate children and held them close, but viewed them as valuable political assets when they came of useful age – in Lucretia’s case at the age of 13, when he married her off for the first time.

Of Cesare: ” Cesare was a man of extraordinary physical presence, popular with his troops, asking nothing of them that he wouldn’t do himself.  A ruthless manipulator and strategist, aware that time was running out as his father got older. Frustrated at what he saw as his father’s dithering.  “The trouble with the old is that their blood runs tepid, while ours runs boiling hot”, he says at one point In the Name of the Family.”

Can Cesare, who did murder Lucretia’s second husband, be rehabilitated?  Partially … when we remember that he was afflicted with syphillis at a young age, (actually when he was a cardinal) and so badly disfigured by it, that he resorted to wearing a mask, and yet look at what he achieved, despite the protracted illness.  I began to think of him as a malevolent superman while reading Dunant’s novels.  What did Dunant say? “An extraordinary physical presence.” She also said of him: “I think he was, without doubt, a sociopath, but, looking at his patterns of behaviour, I also think he was bi-polar.”

Machiavelli makes an appearance in the second novel as a young Florentine diplomat, observing Cesare Borgia, whom he was later to capture in the pages of the infamous The Prince. A consumate piece of political reporting according to Dunant.  “His dispatches from that time are gold-dust,” said Dunant.  She also said: “I thought he was smart.  I like smart!”

But what of Lucretia? Have you been following how she has been used by the men in her life?  Married to Giovanni Sforza at 13, forced to divorce and marry Alfonso of Aragon at 18 (a man she came to love), widowed at 20 by the hand of her brother.  Her third marriage to the much older and syphilitic Alfonso de l’Este, Duke of Ferrara at the age of 21.  Does this sound like the well-known strumpet of ill-repute or more like a dutiful daughter?  She became Rodrigo’s and Cesare’s political tool at the age of 13, and look at the pain they put her through by the time she was 20!

Yes, she left her son by her second husband to be brought up by others when she married for the third time.  But Dunant stressed that she should not be judged by our standards, but thar we should live with her in her own moment when this was the done thing.  She’s not the feisty heroine the C21st desires, but – and here is where she earns Dunant’s admiration – she gradually realises that the only way to gain a measure of independence is to get out of Rome.  She agrees to the marriage with the Duke of Ferrara and rides away, knowing that the Ferraras do not want her.  Because of her family connections, she is tainted goods, but Rodrigo makes the marriage worth their while with the biggest dowry ever paid in Italy. She does not love her third husband, but is sufficiently savvy to understand that her marriage is a diplomatic alliance and eventually forges an effective partnership with him.  She establishes her court, and transforms herself into the well-respected Duchess of Ferrara.  This is the journey Lucretia makes in the pages of In The Name of The Family.

So where does the rumour of incest originate? Dunant pinpoints it to the first divorce.  Lucretia had been married to Giovanni Sforza for 3 years without issue.  But Sforza had outlived his usefulness and Rodrigo needed her to be free to make another strategic marriage.  He decided to annul the marriage on the grounds of Sforza’s impotence, and Lucretia, who still did everything her father demanded of her, signed papers to that effect.  How did Sforza react with the following statement: “I have known her an infinity of times, but he (Rodrigo) just wants her back for himself.” Thus is a reputation destroyed!  “Fake news!”, cried Dunant.

Had these people no conscience?  “The Catholic practice of confession allowed them moral wriggle room”, she explained. “But, at times, it became a wild dance.”  Indeed and it is one that she captures brilliantly in her two Borgia novels, which I devoured within a week.  They are truly compulsive; with such protagonists and shenanigans, how could they not be? And there is also a feisty heroine in the form of Machiavelli’s wife.  He didn’t have it all his own way.  However, I would argue that there is a character bigger than any named so far:  Syphillis – a pestilence that arrived in Europe when Columbus returned from the Americas and cut a swathe so rapidly that, following the first reported cases in Naples in 1494, brothels were closing in Aberdeen in 1497.  Dunant includes the then hopeless fight against the disease and details the gruelling treatments that Cesare had to endure.  The doctors were at a loss – all they could do was slow its progess in an individual, but they could not cure.  As Dunant pointed out, syphillis remained a killer until the discovery of penicillin in 1946.  She is also convinced that Lucretia died of it, contracting it from her third husband.  It was the final wrong done to her by the men in her life.

To conclude the session, the chair, Jenny Brown, asked Dunant to summarise Lucretia in 3 adjectives.  She chose:

canny, loving, able to learn

Were these the words you picked at the beginning of this post?