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imageThe fifth novel on TJ’s #12germansin2016 list is one I would never have read, if left to my own devices.  There are too many reasons not to read holocaust novels to list them here.  And yet, somehow this modern classic was waiting in the TBR for its moment to come, and so ….

In a previous review I was bemoaning a lack of sheer brilliance and emotional cataclysm.  Becker put that to rights and didn’t take many pages to do it. 15 pages in and  I knew I was reading a masterpiece.  At this point I wondered how many awards it had won:  Heinrich Mann Prize (1971), Charles Veillon Prize (1971) and this 1990 translation by Leila Vennewitz won the Helen and Kurt Wolf Translator’s Prize.

Jacob Heym is wandering around the Jewish Ghetto shortly before curfew, when he gets caught in the spotlight.  The guard, pretending that Jacob has violated curfew, sends him to the police station for punishment.  Now two miraculous things happen.  1) Jacob overhears a radio report concerning the Russian advance and 2) he gets to leave the police station alive.   The new report gives Jacob hope.  The following day he blurts out the news to his friend Mischa in order to prevent him from doing something stupid.  How do you know that? queries Mischa.  Unable to tell the truth, because no-one would believe he had come out of the police station alive (unless he were there to denounce someone), Jacob tells Mischa that he has a radio.  And this lie fuels the rest of the novel.

Radios are, of course, verboten, and to possess one is a capital offence.  This, however, is the least of Jacob’s problems.  As news of his radio spreads, so too does the need of the persecuted for updated bulletins.  Jacob finds himself having to take risks to get snippets of information from the outside.  But it’s too dangerous and so Jacob Heym gets creative.

What he’s doing is a good thing, isn’t it?  Bringing hope to the thousands of Jews, whose only way out of the Ghetto is a transport to the death camps.  If only it were as simple as that.  Not everyone welcomes the news of the radio – if the Germans hear of it, there could be a mass deportation to the camps as punishment.  And hope, in these twisted circumstances, also leads directly to the death of one who passes it on to a wagon-load of Jewish prisoners couped up in the sidings.

That one little lie turns into a real burden for Jacob, who is no hero.  He’s a curmudgeon, a loner, not a social creature at all.  Nor does his want his new role, but he recognises that the suicides have stopped and so he continues to make up his stories to keep his fellow Jews from falling into despair.  The Russians really aren’t that far away.  Deliverance is at hand.  We just need to survive a little while longer.

Easier said than done in a place where walking the streets without the identifying yellow star results in a one-way ticket for the offender and his family to the death camps.  Where whole streets are cleared on a whim.  Taking us deep into the heart of the ghetto, Becker details practical realities and individual histories across the social classes without any sentimentality.  The struggle, the despair and the arbitrariness of survival, but also the continuing humanity and dignity of an oppressed people, which cannot be vanquished even in the face of the grossest cruelty.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the telling is the narrator.  It took a while for me to identify him and to work out how he got his insider knowledge.  The realisation is heart-breaking.  For no matter how much the narrator (and the reader) wants this to end well and to believe in  the first fictitious ending, the second one reflects the tragic truth of the matter.  When the Russians finally liberated the Lodz ghetto, they found only 877 Jews alive.  The rest had been transported to the camps – among them a young lad named Jurek Becker.  Fortunately he survived.  Years later he penned this astonishing novel,  and I suspect I’ve just read my book of the year.

Thank you, TJ.

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Tmestamp: Lanarkshire, Scotland 19:26 June 01 2016

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Three days consecutive blue sky bliss
Too good to miss.
I’ll be back
When the clouds return (to their usual) black.

imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

This is the title on the shortlist I was anticipating the most.  Billed as the companion piece to Any Human Heart and blurbed as the best thing Boyd has ever written, it had a lot to live up to, particularly as Any Human Heart is IMO a masterpiece.

Amory Clay is the female counterpart to Logan Mountstewart.  She’s born in 1908 and dies in 1983, so sees most of the C20th.  Her profession as photographer is useful.   It allows Boyd to move her around the globe to many of the C20th hotspots.  She starts off as a society photographer with her uncle, who advises her to create a scandal to make her name known.  Cue move to the louche Berlin of the 1930s.  The resulting pictures are too effective.  Following an obscenity trial, her reputation is in shatters.  To restart her career, she needs to move to the States,  sponsored by the man destined to become her employer, lover and long-term protector.  There follow sojourns in France during WWII as a rather uncourageous war photographer, in Scotland as part of the landed gentry during the 1950s, another stint as a war photographer during Vietnam, after which her final years are spent living alone with her dog back on the West Coast of Scotland.

There’s a lot happening on this world stage, and Amory Clay’s personal life is just as eventful! As if dalliances with her married employer and a French writer, marriage with a Scottish Lord were not enough, Amory’s life still has time for final adventure chasing after her AWOL daughter to an American commune. At 447 pages, this is one of the longest novels of the Walter Scott Shortlist, and it is also the quickest read.

Boyd loves to mix his books with other art forms and so here the chosen medium is photography. Scattered among the text are photographs, purporting to be those taken by Amory Clay. Now I haven’t heard Boyd speak, nor have I read any interviews about this novel, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear of him finding a cache of unaccredited (and not always brilliant) photographs around which he has seamlessly woven his tale.  (Aaah, look what I just found.)

A key question for the success of this novel is whether Amory Clay feels authentic. She does in most things:  discovery of the carnal coinciding with the slackening of moral restraint in the C20th,  lack of courage at the front line and her honesty about it,  falling for men who are not emotionally the best choice, the  sometimes distant relationship with her daughters. Her forgiveness of her father stretched my credulity somewhat (No hints here, it’s a major plot feature.) I particularly enjoyed her analysis of light.

 I watched the day slip into night, noting the wondrous tonal transformations of the sunset on its dimmer switch, how blood-orange can shade imperceptibly into ice-blue on the knife-edge of the horizon ….

Much to enjoy, therefore, but nothing that had me as a reader firing on all cylinders. Why ever not? Let me be clear. Sweet Caress is a good novel and a vast improvement on the last Boyd I read. (In fact, Waiting for Sunrise had me thinking that I wouldn’t bother reading any more.) But I had been led to expect something on a par with Any Human Heart and so I was waiting for the sheer brilliance and emotional cataclysm of the dog food moment. It was perhaps unfair of me to do so.

 

 

imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize

And so to the finale of Allan Massie’s atmospheric crime quartet set in Vichy France. (Parts 1 and 2 are reviewed here, Part 3 here.). It is the early summer of 1944. The Germans have lost the war and the allied invasion is expected, eagerly or with apprehension depending on the choices made during the Occupation. For Superintendent Lannes the end can’t come quickly enough, even though his family will suffer one way or the other, given that one son is happily working for Vichy France, the other has joined the free French and his daughter has fallen in love with a fully-fledged German sympathiser, now fighting in Hitler’s  army. For himself, Lannes just wants to be able to work again, free from political interference. At the beginning of this novel, however, he is suspended at the order of the Germans – he’s paying the price for doing the morally right thing in the previous novel.

But he is not bitter. He understands that his boss Schnyder was simply being expedient “determined to survive, however things turned out.” He is suffering from ennui, however, and so when he is approached by the Count of St. Hilaire to investigate the disappearance of his grand-niece, he accepts. The case brings him into contact with the real bogey man of the quartet, the lawyer Labiche. Throughout the quartet Lannes has crossed swords with Labiche multiple times, and with the end of the Occupation in sight, Lannes senses his chance for revenge.

Continuing to tread the streets of Bordeaux, Lannes meets the circle of friends and adversaries that have populated the previous three novels, and I do think that this may be confusing to those coming to End Games without prior knowledge. This is one series where I would advise starting at Book One. That way the jumps to the parallel lives of Lannes’s sons and Michel, his daughter’s lover, will not disconcert. Nor will their purpose. Not a single one of them comes out of the other side with their ideals intact ….

… and even Lannes, desperate to be free from intolerable political pressures, has to recognise that the time has not yet come. Now that the Boches have gone, justice will have new masters. In the words of Judge Bracal:

For four years the prevailing wind has come from Vichy. Now the wind has shifted. It blows with the Resistance, and … for weeks and perhaps months to come, the Law will be whatever the Resistance says it is.

I have followed Lannes during the dark years trying to uphold justice in the face of Vichy/Nazi law. He has at least tried to maintain his own integrity. He has not always succeeded. Finding now that similar struggles will continue through the Expiation and beyond,  he is finally embittered and filled with hatred for the hypocrises of his fellow countrymen.  Rising above it all is sometimes an impossible task.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

You can always tell when the weather’s good in Scotland – this blog goes quiet. (Good days are too precious to waste inside on the computer.) However, normal service has been resumed, and I am once again sheltering inside. Time to start on the Walter Scott shortlist, which I shall attempt to read in its entirety before the winner’s announcement is made on 18th June.

Let’s start with the only lady on the list, and a novel that is curiously not available in the UK. I had to import the book from Australia to read it. At least this made me realise how lucky we are in the UK, where books are more reasonably priced ….

Salt Creek is Lucy Treloar’s debut novel which has also been longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin award. It is set primarily in 1855 in the Coorong, a remote and inhospitable coastal region in Southern Australia. Stanton Finch, following a failed business venture, refuses to accept charity from his wealthy in-laws and moves his family to establish a dairy farm in Salt Creek. The fact that he must build his new home from driftwood, the remnants of ship-wrecked vessels, is presentiment enough for what is to follow.

Neither climate nor pasture are ideal – salt from the sea permeates the landscape. So the odds are stacked again Stanton Finch, who besides having no business sense, does not understand the ecology. Unlike the Ngarrindjeri, the aboriginal tribe who are about to be displaced – though not in a violent clash of cultures. This is a gradual dispossession – though sickness brought by the settlers, and a betrayal of Stanton Finch’s values by Stanton Finch himself who believes himself to be an enlightened Christian man ascribing to the maxim that all men are born equal. With that in mind he sets out to help the Ngarrindjeri, with gifts of food and clothing, protecting their fresh water supplies, and he semi-adopts an aboriginal child, inviting Tull into his home to educate him, the hope being that Tull will spread the values of civilisation through his own people.

Which is all very well until life deals him one blow after the next. A stubborn man, Stanton Finch exacts the price of each failure on his family. When Tull makes the naive mistake of believing himself to be equal, the despot in Stanton Finch rises while the downward spiral accelerates, shattering any remaining semblance of family cohesion. The family saga (and saga it is – perhaps a little too domestic for my taste) is told in retrospect by Hester, Stanton Finch’s eldest daughter. The harsh years at Salt Creek are the formative years for her and her siblings, and the place one they must escape if they are not to descend to the depths of their father. Not all of them do.

This is not your standard pioneering tale – a tale of man waging a successful battle against the elements, of “civilising” those who have no need of it. Rather it is anti-heroic, a “decivilisation” if you will. There are no miracles, just harsh realities depicting the self-deception of the settlers, with hard questions asked of their Victorian world view.

The role of hero in these pages is reserved for the landscape. As Treloar notes in her acknowledgements, The Coroong is strange and secluded and grand enough to humble. That’s a lesson that the presumptious Stanton Finch must learn very much to his cost.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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The pelican lifted up its head and beak, and shook them, wobbling its neck, trying to force the pigeon further down the sac of its throat. The pigeon was still very much alive; its fight-back stretched the skin of the pelican’s gullet until it was almost translucent, with the dark outline of the smaller bird clearly visible. It was a ferocious fighter, and Peter found he couldn’t tear his gaze away as the pigeon succeeded in struggling back up the pelican’s gullet and into its beak, and for a moment it looked as if it might manage to get free.

I love a good metaphor and this one on page 254 of Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days perfectly sums up the struggle for political survival between the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. But who is swallowing whom and why? Do politicians need motivation other than the lust for political power.  I’d say no, but there has to be a catalyst for the declaration of war and a power grab.

Cue riots on the streets of London, ostensibly triggered by the death of a black man under police restraint. In reality, however, the resulting peaceful demonstration is hijacked by those with other agendas. Look back at the UK riots of 2011 to see how events escalated into anarchy; a trajectory mirrored in Slovo’s novel with the impact on individuals and key players depicted in mesmerising detail.

Cathy Mason – a middle-aged single mother, living in the disadvantaged, restless and soon-to-be-condemned Lovelace estate, desperately trying to keep her community together. Her life is complicated by her love for Banji, the only man she has or will ever love, although he appears not to deserve her.

Commissioner Yares, Metropolitan police chief, the Prime Minister’s man, who starts his new job on the day that all hell breaks loose. A sitting duck (or should that be pigeon?) for the Home Secretary, who, while the Prime Minister is attending important negotiations elsewhere, loses no opportunity to score political points against perceived incompetence and “soft” policing.

The Home Secretary and his women: wife and PA/lover. No political drama would be complete without shenanigans of this ilk.

The Prime Minister – more off the page than on. Nevertheless, a smooth operator, not to be under estimated.

Slovo punches with both fists exposing the machinations of the powerful, the cynicism at the heart of the Met’s recruitment policies, and the sincere, but ultimately powerless hearts of the common man. That would be powerless in the face of higher authorities, but also in matters of love. The lovers (Banji and the home secretary’s PA) providing the most unexpected twists of them all in a narrative covering ten critical days that – like the riots at their centre – cannot be predicted.

This is a gutsy read;  a warts-and-all  journal of each main character’s experience, sometimes with overlapping timelines. (So reader, pay attention.) Interspersed are redacted confidential police reports, using police jargon, for the forthcoming inquiry. (Thankfully there is a helpful glossary at the back). These reports are chilling in their emotional distance, but they do provide another more objective viewpoint of police decisions that outsiders (and politicians) are quick to criticise. Further balance is provided by the experience of Chief Inspector Billy Ridgeton, who is called in from a day off to help out with the escalating unrest and doesn’t come off duty for a week.

I’ve been meaning to read Slovo since publication of The Ice Road in 2004. Glad to have rectified that omission in my reading now and am looking forward to acquainting myself with her back catalogue.  In producing this novel, filled with players and their power plays, Slovo has herself played an absolute blinder!

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© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

imageI’ve never been happy with my review of Kehlmann’s Measuring The World from nine years ago. I always felt that I had been blindsided by the humour of the piece; that I hadn’t got to the core of things. In the years since, I have heard Kehlmann referee a translation duel and speak of the style he used – everything in indirect speech, putting a distance between reader and subject, endowing the action with a cinematic quality. I must read it in German, I thought. I still haven’t done that. However, as my second reading of Carol Brown Janeway’s fluid translation immediately followed my reading of Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, I returned to Kehlmann’s novel with fresh eyes.

But firstly let me say that Measuring the World has, in the intervening years, has lost none of its charm or entertainment value. It remains an absolute humdinger. However, knowing much more about the obsessive Alexander Humboldt gave me a better insight into Kehlmann’s talents. It is the historical novelist’s job to

a) show us the human reality that the historical record glosses over. Such as how impossible Humboldt must have been to live with. Poor Aimé Bonpland takes the brunt of this for 5 years in the South America wilderness. The man deserved a sainthood! Gauss, too, a curmudgeon, best left alone with his head in the clouds of higher mathematics.

b) condense the lives of the two greatest scientists of their time into just 260 pages. Their differing backgrounds, their radically different modus operandi, nothing to share but their genius and an incredible number of discoveries.

But to do so artistically, in a new, a novel way. I’ve already commented on the humour. Kehlmann also uses structure to good effect, starting his novel at the only time when the two men met before looping back into the past to tell their histories in parallel. (Demonstrating from the offset, the Gaussian theory of parallel lines meeting?) The literal highpoint of Humboldt’s career at 18,690 feet, at the point where a ravine stops Bonpland and himself from climbing to the summit of Mount Chimborazo. This episode occurs dead centre in the book. Not that everything was downhill for Humboldt after that, but he was never to experience the same exhilaration.

A novelist can also use poetic licence, concatenating events, perhaps even changing them for dramatic effect. I’m now suspicious of the electric eel adventure I highlighted in my first review as Andrea Wulf tells it differently. Humboldt and Bonpland sent horses into the pond of electric eels. Kehlmann emphasises how they used their own bodies. Which made me a little suspicious of Eugen Gauss’s calamitous experience in Berlin. Great for the novel but life surely couldn’t be that cruel? Facts, it seem, are somewhat different. Not that this detracts in iota from Kehlmann’s telling. Historical novelists are not oath-bound to tell the truth!

imageAnd so to the 2012 film starring Florian David Fitz as Gauss and Albrecht Schuch as Alexander von Humboldt. Interestingly Gauss taking centre stage on the DVD jacket. An indication that his story (the poor kid made good) was the more interesting and coherent on film. Humboldt’s more panoramic storyline more difficult to convey when confined to short episodic bursts. Some of these scenes, such as the hallucinations on Mount Chimborazo just didn’t work at all. That said, the film is a visual treat and the overlay of a narrator, not only necessary to hold it all together, but also a nod Kehlmann’s indirect narrative. A word of warning though. Watch only if you are a German speaker as half the English subtitles are missing!

My thanks to TJ at My Book Strings. Her choice of Kehlmann’s Measuring The World as #4 of 12 Germans for 2016 gave me the necessary push to revisit an old favourite. TJ’s review is here and Naomi at Consumed by Ink has also joined in here.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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