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imageWinner of the 2015 Grimmelshausen Prize

Translated from German by Charlotte Collins

Atop the mountain depicted on the dust jacket sits a modest wooden hut.  This is the hand-built home of Andreas Egger, a man whose spends most of his life eking out an existence in the mountain valley.

His life is hard.  He is brought up by his uncle,  treated more as a farm hand than a family member, and beaten so cruelly that he is left with a permanent injury.  When the worm turns, as it always does, he must fend for himself. With no clear ambitions, he manages to do this, hiring himself out as a farmhand, as a labourer building cable cars.  The high point of his life is lived with his wife in the aforementioned hut.  Yet this happiness is short-lived.  The mountain proves to be an even harsher master than his uncle ….

The great avalanche of 1935 causes Andreas to move away from the valley to build more cable cars and eventually to go to war.  Following years as a Soviet POW, he returns to a different world. Life is now dictated by the demands of the tourist industry.  For years, he struggles to come to terms with this until a serendipitous event leads to the mountain paying back some slight compensation for the losses sustained decades before.

For the most part Andreas’s is a solitary existence – imposed at times, chosen at others. He doesn’t even turn to the television for  company – watching it only on two recorded occasions. As he grows old in poverty, increasingly unkempt, increasingly intolerant of other humans and their chatter, he becomes the mad old man of the village.  He is aware of how others see him but is indifferent.  He faces death with the same stoicism he has displayed throughout his life.

He couldn’t remember where he had come from and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go.  But he could look back without regret on the time inbetween, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.

That’s not how I react to his life.  In fact, in many places I found tragedy and I often felt profound melancholy.  I said before that he had no clear ambitions.  Actually that’s not entirely accurate – there is one, heartbreaking in its modesty and execution.  I won’t reveal so as not to diminish the poignacy of its effect when you read for yourself. But does my reaction to Andreas’s life reveal my own lack of wisdom more than anything else?  And is the underlying message of Seethaler’s piece that unreasonable expectation is the source of our contemporary ills?

Even though I’ve not mentioned it, landscape plays as important a role as the main character. The 3rd person narrative is both visual and fluid. There’s not much dialogue, but then the main character isn’t very talkative.   Nevertheless this is a slim, easily read and thought-provoking read, which strikes me as a perfect companion to Christa Wolf’s August.

I know it’s only day four, and I don’t intend making a habit of this but …

Three Percent Blog announced a new Reading The World Book Club this morning.

Oh, thought I, what a great idea! I’ll join in for any titles translated from German.  I probably have them in my TBR anyway.

imageGuess what? I’m currently reading my second Austrian award winning novel this year. The first title of the new book club is another Austrian award winning novel – Marianne Fritz’s The Weight of Things. I didn’t have it in my TBR this morning.  I do now and it will be my next read.

(Exceptions are allowed in the TBR Double Dog Dare, and neither does the purchase break my 5:1 ratio for 2016 as I’ve already read 2 and sold 3 from “personal stock”.  My objectives are still intact.)

 

Let the first review of the year be of the first book read.

January the First is inseparable from the Strauss concert and an accompanying glass of bubbly because, if ever my name surfaces during the draw for (affordable) tickets to the real thing, I would definitely be drinking champagne in the Wiener Musikverein. In the meantime, while I fantasise, it was music, champagne and accompanying reading material all the way a couple of days ago ….

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I knew that this selection of 17 short stories from Austria was in good hands (translator – Deborah Holmes, editor Helen Constantine) when I saw it bookended by my favourite Arthur Schnitzler. Which is not to say that there is any lack of quantity in the stories from other contributors.  Established names from the past such as Joseph Roth, Adalbert Stifter, Ingeborg Bachmann and Veza Canetti are all present, alongside contemporary authors: Friedericke Mayröcker, Alexander Kluge, Dimitri Dinev, Christine Nöstlinger, Eva Menasse and Doron Rabinovici.

Of the 14 authors I had previously read 4, so this volume also served as an introduction to a wider range of Austrian writing.

There  isn’t space here to summarise all every story, but I will quickly list my three favourites.  I’m leaving Schnitzler out of this – he has an unfair advantage.  In no particular order, apart from ladies first.

Oh my eyes – Ingeborg Bachmann
Partially sighted Miranda is forever forgetting (aka refusing)  to wear her glasses.  Her physical eyes may be failing but there’s nothing wrong with her intuition.  Which does not bode well for her romance with Stasi.

This was my first encounter with Bachmann.  It won’t be my last.

Spas Sleeps – Dimitri Dinev
Set in 2001, Spas is a refugee from Bulgaria wanting to make a life for himself in Vienna.  He isn’t the first and, as events in 2016, are proving, he won’t be the last.  He is seeking the Holy Grail of work, but, even in 2001, this is difficult, if not impossible, for unskilled labour.  Fortunately for Spas, he teams up with a former school acquaintance.  They weren’t friends then, but circumstances now are to render them inseparable.  This is life on the periphery of city living; a hard and oftimes desperate experience.

The Prater – Adalbert Stifter
Perhaps the best matched story  for the would-be tourist – Stifter’s stroll through the Prater on May Day is a reminder of the delights that await and a warning to avoid the overcrowded areas like the plague on a public holiday. And he was writing in 1841!

Holmes organises the anthology not chronologically but geographically starting from the outskirts coming into the centre before returning to the outskirts. This emphasises underlying themes  – life on the periphery for example  – but also demonstrates a city undergoing change through the ages. So Dimev’s story of C21st refugees sits very close to Stifter’s C19th walk through the Prater.  We pass by famous landmarks, even at one point eating ice-cream with Lenin in the café Demel.

We don’t, however, eat chocolate cake in the Hotel Sacher, an experience I now have such a yearning to repeat. This might actually be doable in 2016,  as I now discover it’s cheaper to fly from Edinburgh to Vienna than to travel by train to London ….

Moving into 2016

I suppose the first thing I should say is that Lizzy’s Literary Life will continue in 2016. That wasn’t a given.  In fact, for most of 2015 I’d been saying in real life that post 1,001 would be the last.  Well, that post finally arrived during German Literature Month, when I was having a ball, and rediscovered a blogging/reviewing mojo that had deserted me throughout most of the year. I had managed to keep the blog going (because it serves primarily as my reading journal) but I wasn’t enjoying it. Now that GLM is not sustaining me, I’m flagging again.

imageObjective 1: I will read less for the blog and more for myself.  By that I mean, I won’t pick up books solely because I think they will be good for statistics, and I will definitely read more German books, even if that means I need to rename the blog “Love German Books in Translation”.  I jest – or do I?  Could be a spin-off as long as Katy of the original Love German Books doesn’t object.  Regardless, I’m setting myself a target of 40% German Books to be read this year.  There’s a magic mountain of German literature waiting on my shelves. TJ’s Twelve Germans in 2016 and GLM VI (which, all being well,  we can count on because Caroline has already chosen the War and Literature readalong – see comments in previous post) will help that cause along nicely.

Actually there’s also a non-German TBR mountain range of Himalayan proportions demanding my attention. I must have a couple of thousand unread books, on the shelves, stacked on the bedroom floor, under the bed, in the attic.  (None in the garage because they’d only get damp in Scotland.)  I confess right here and now that I lost The Battle of the Books last year.  In fact, I was comprehensively slaughtered despite initial successes.  In 2016, I will even the score.

Objective 2:  I am setting limits on purchases.  A ratio of one purchase for every 3 books read or culled should be doable, shouldn’t it? Actually that’s too easy as I haven’t accounted for incoming review books.  Let’s make it 1 for every 5.  (To be reviewed at the end of March.) And to ensure I don’t cheat, (particularly round trigger points like literary festivals or a new edition of New German Books), I shall keep account of the stats in a monthly round up post.

imageThis means for the whole of 2016 I shall focus on the pre-existing TBR, even though I’m not opting for the full Howard’s-Hill-is-on-the-Landing experience.

Objective 3:  80% of all 2016 reads will come from the TBR as of 31.12.2015. So yes, I am signing-up for James’s (final?) TBR Triple Dog Dare for all 3 months.  Exceptions will be books needed for the aforementioned 12 Germans, anything that must be read for Ayewrite! in March and the 2 books I have on preorder.

Thereafter, I’ll keep journeying through my TBR, working my way through the alphabet.  I love the extreme reading of Annabel’s Shelves Project and have been thinking of joining her.  But sequentially by letter, doesn’t cater for whimsy, so this is how I’ll play it.  I’ll choose a letter to act in an associative way for book choices. I tried it out in December, starting conventionally with A.  I “read” 6 books – 2 audiobooks, an Austrian book, an anthology set in St Andrews,  1 written by an Andrew and another by an author from Accrington (my home town). For January I have lined up 5 awardwinners, a book by another Andrew, an anthology of Austrian short stories and the latest by Kate Atkinson.  I wonder too if I can fit in a second helping by the Australian author of my 2015 Book of the Year before moving onto the next letter.  (Likely to be H, assuming Hesse Reading Week is confirmed …)

I probably won’t dwell on each letter quite as long as with A, in order to make some progress,  But I’m not setting a timescale for this, because the idea is to enjoy the adventure. Now if someone could point me in the direction of a snazzy, badge maker for IOS, I might rustle up a lovely little icon for My Journeys Adventures through the TBR.

Gosh, I’m feeling all enthusiastic again!

 

 

My Books of 2015

I read, listened to, or saw performed a total of 108 literary works during 2015. A full statistical analysis will follow shortly, but today I’m recording a baker’s dozen of my 2015 favourites – listed in the order I read them with links to my reviews, where these exist.

Best literary novel: Eyrie – Tim Winton (January)
I haven’t read an Australian novel I didn’t love. Not that I’ve read many, but this is a reminder to myself to read more.

Best Scottish and most topical novel: This is Where I Am – Karen Campbell (January)
In a world where refugees are increasingly treated with suspicion and worse, this is a wake up call to their shared humanity.

Best comic novel: The Table of Less Valued Knights – Marie Phillips (March)
A spoof on the bravery and general all-round dashingness of the Arthurian knight.

Best historical novel featuring a favourite artist:  Will & Tom – Matthew Plampin (April)
The artist in question is Turner.

The quirkiest of them all: A Tabby Cat’s Tale – Hang Dong (Translated from Chinese by Nicky Harman) (April)
I’m not a cat lover, but I have owned dogs, and so I recognise the situation in having your house and life taken over by a four-legged creature … Believe me, this beloved moggy is a malcreant extraordinaire!

Best travelling companion: The Ludwig Conspiracy – Oliver Pötzsch (translated from German by Anthea Bell). (May)
There’s only one thing as much fun as visiting Munich and the Bavarian castles oneself, and that’s reading about a second-hand book dealer doing the same, while fleeing those pursuing him for the valuable and dangerous secret in his possession. Highly unfeasible escapism here but I also learned a few new and quite scurrilous things about Ludwig II of Bavaria ….

Best translation: Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (translated from Russian by Rosamund Bartlett) (July)
I didn’t review this, because what can I add to the millions of words written about AK – except perhaps that it reads more powerfully in my mid-50s than it did in my mid-teens. (The benefits of experience, I suppose.) Bartlett’s translation is sublime.

Discovery of the Year, best short story collection, and the one I should have read earlier: While The Women Are Sleeping – Javier Marías (Translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa) (July)
What can I say? Thanks to Spanish Literature Month, I finally got round to it.

Best novella and best homage: The New Sufferings of Young W – Ulrich Plenzdorf (Translated from German by Romy Fursland)(August)
Goethe is probably turning in his grave …..

Best neuronovel and best historical novel set in a madhouse: Playthings – Alex Pheby (September)
If the Literary Review can term this the best neuronovel ever written, I can accord it best neuronovel of 2015.

Biggest surprise: Gnädnigster Herr, Ich habe Familie – Friedrich von Schiller (October)
I just cannot believe how much I enjoyed reading this compilation of Schiller’s begging letters, as part of my research for Schiller Reading Week. Still don’t, almost three months later.

Best thriller and young adult novel: Erebos – Ursula Poznanski (Translated from German by Judi Pattinson) (November)
Simply put, WOW!

Best coffee table book and the heaviest, most beautiful and most expensive purchase of the year: Germany Around 1900. (December)
A gift from me to me, financed by the proceeds of a pre-holiday season sale of unwanted knick-knacks and other paraphernalia! I won’t review it because I cannot possibly do the majesty of this book justice without taking pictures that may infringe oopyright. Instead I’ll link to the article that brought it to my attention.

And from these I must pick a book of the year?  It’s hard.  Excluding the re-reads (Tolstoy, Plenzdorf), there are three front runners.  I’ll rule out Germany around 1900 because it’s mostly pictures – breathtakingly beautiful pictures, admittedly.  But there’s not much reading in it.

Which leaves Poznanski vs Winton. Both novels have wow factor in spades.  At this point, though, I must confess that Poznanski didn’t reel me in right from the start, but with what is possibly the shortest first sentence ever, Winton did and he never let me go. So….

Lizzy’s Book of 2015 is:

Eyrie

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

It would be a shame to let 2015 pass without reviewing what was the longest literary experience of the year, both in terms of page count and time committment: 1696 pages which because I listened to the three unabridged audio books translated into 60 hours of listening over a period of 6 months.  (I only listen to audio books when I’m alone in the car.)

The Ibis Trilogy is Ghosh’s retelling of that infamous episode in British history, the first Opium War (1839- 1842). I still remember the incredulity I experienced when – it was years and years ago and I’m more worldly-wise now – I first heard that we fought a war to preserve our right to trade in hard drugs, so when Sea of Poppies was first published in 2008, with that beautiful dust jacket, it was added to the TBR right away.  Same thing happened with River of Smoke in 2011.  For some reason though, I didn’t make a start until the final part, Flood of Fire was published in 2015.

If that was a strategy, it worked well, because “reading” the three parts back to back let me appreciate the coherence of the whole in a way that may otherwise have been lost.  To summarise briefly:  Sea of Poppies shows the impact of the Opium trade on the little men, the people in The Bay of Bengal, who grow and manufacture the product; River of Smoke shifts primarily to the viewpoint of the traders, with growing resistance to the trade from the Chinese authorities; and in Flood of Fire all hell breaks loose!

imageBut let’s start at the beginning and admit that Sea of Poppies was not what I was expecting at all!  For some reason, I thought that most of the action would be on the Ibis – the ex-slaver – and at sea.  Not so, it is a leisurely gathering together of those who finally take to sea in the Ibis in the final chapters of the book.  The device  allows Ghosh to explore in detail the back stories of those that find themselves on board: the officers, the crew, and the indentured Indians on their way to work in the Sugar plantations in Mauritius.  And therein lies the emotional pull of this first part.  For amongst the passengers are Deeti and Neel; the former, the widow of a heroin addict, fleeing death on her husband’s funeral pyre.  Neel, once a wealthy rajah, is now being transported as a debtor after his creditors unscrupulously call in debts when he refuses to sell them some of his ancestral lands.  Much to his disgust, he shares his cabin/cell with a filthy Chinese heroine addict, and yet, the story  how Neel overcomes his prejudices, and not only helps but befriends Ah Fatt is one of the most humane subplots of the piece.  Among the officers, who in the main are as beastly and sadistic as you would expect, given that they are representatives of the British Empire, is a fine, young, honourable, American, named Zachary Reid.

These people, like the IBIS, form a backbone through the trilogy. Although, given that they all set off on the voyage to Mauritius, they all end up in different places.  A storm and a mutiny at sea take care of that!

imageRiver of Smoke introduces us to another ship, the Anahita, which is floundering in the same storm.  She is owned by Barum Modi, a Parsee business man.  Her hold is full of opium and it is crucial that this trip is successful, if Barum is to buy out his double-dealing brothers-in-law.  The storm does not augur well, nor do the times.  It is 1838, a year before the First Opium War, and the Chinese are beginning to crack down on the trade.  Luckily for Barum the Anahita and most of his cargo makes it through the storm to arrive in Canton.  As do Neel and Ah Fatt, who is Barum’s son by his Chinese mistress.  This revelation allows Ghosh to   inject a domestic drama – father and son are estranged – into the midst of intense commercial and political negotiations. Which are staggering  in their self-righteousness and hypocrisy to say the least.  Here in a nutshell is the British argument.

… the only offence cited against us is that we have obeyed the laws of Free Trade – and it is no more possible for us to be heedless of those laws that to disregard the forces of nature, or disobey God’s commandments.

And yet, even though Barum is one of them, he became my favourite character in the trilogy, whereas Commissioner Lin, the bogeyman for the opium traders, became my favourite villain!   Who would have thought it.

imageI spent the pages of River of Smoke missing Zachary Reid.  I needn’t have worried.  I got more than enough of him,  his mistress, Mrs Burnham, and their sexual peccadilloes, during Flood of Fire.  Pages and pages – or hours and hours of listening, which I couldn’t fast forward.   Quite simply, too much information.  In my view, a miscalculation by Ghosh – I’m not sure what the point was beyond the fact that the C19th was as libidinous as the C21st.  What started as an affair of convenience though, did result in  real feelings, and Mrs Burnham did the best she could to turn Zachary into a successful man of his time.  She did a fabulous job and these pages see Zachary turn from a charming , honourable freshman into …..

…. a man of the times  …. a man who wants more and more and more; a man who does not know the meaning of “enough”.  Anyone who tries to thwart my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must be expected to be treated as such.

Something which bodes badly for Ah Fatt.  Of all the heinous acts in this trilogy, Zachary Reid’s treachery is the lowlight.  Although it’s hard to condemn him.  He has been remoulded by the opium trade to become a man of his time after all.

As I write this, I wonder if the Reid/Ah Fatt dynamic is metaphoric in some way …..

…. because this is where the British Empire finally strike the Chinese.  The first Opium War arrives and with it battle after battle, during which the Chinese are hopelessly outgunned and completely outmanoeuvred, despite outnumbering their foe.  We see the war up close through the eyes of Kesri Singh, an Indian soldier in the service of the British army (and brother of Deeti) and observed by a non-combatant in the diary of Neel Rattan, who following his stint with Barum, is now in the employ of the Chinese.

Ghosh’s narrative is incredibly detailed; the result of his prodigous research. Occasionally he  forgets not to let it show and the narrative sags as a result.  (The start of book two and botanic epistolary interludes.)  His ambition though is to recreate a panoramic overview of the world of that time and, in that he succeeds with a multi-national cast of dozens from all social strata, detailing not only the microcosms of their lives but also their languages, specialist vocabularies and dialects.  The linguistics were quite challenging as l listened – I feel sure that I wouldn’t have lost my way had I been reading.  Eventually I let it wash over me – I got the gist anyway …

… and I became as fond of Ghosh’s characters as the author himself.  Even if the ending can’t be a happy one for China (and Ah Fatt), things work out, as far as they can, for most who had a hard time on the Ibis in book one. For a significant number the Ibis plays a key role as she sails off into the distance at the end of book three, mirroring the way she sailed into view at the very beginning.   Neat it may be, but I can think of no more satisfying way to tie up almost one million words of great historical writing.

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