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Book Three  of TJ’s 12 Germans in 2016 and, at last, things are coming together.  I abandoned Book One (Sasa Stanisíc’s How The Soldier Played The Gramophone), and read, enjoyed and promptly forgot everything about Book Two (Judith Hermann’s Summerhouse, Later).  No point trying to blog about it now.

But here we are blogging – to schedule –  about Book 3 … even though I wouldn’t use the word enjoy to describe the (s)experience!

imageMaria is 16, has fled her divorcée mother’s home because she can’t stand the sadness.  She now lives with her boyfriend, Johannes Brendel,  in his attic bedroom on his family’s farm.  Although they are both still attending school, Maria is playing truant, unsure whether she will ever return.  She biding her time.  The Brendels take her in, accept her and gradually she learns some useful skills – how to cook, how to sell in the farm shop, serve at the local tavern. She also learns the arts of duplicity and deception … because she meets a man.

Hard-drinking Henner,  40 years of age, abandoned by his wife years ago, lives alone on a neighbouring farm.  Even with a bad reputation, he’s a bit of a hunk.  Johannes’s mother has the hots for him.  But from the moment he makes a pass at Maria, she is his, as he awakes desires in her that Johannes has yet to imagine.  From here on in, its one tryst after the next.  The emphasis on feeling, not graphic physicality, but there is sufficient detail to know that Henner is not a tender lover – in fact, he is abusive more often than not.

And here I take issue with the blurb.  Does this rather sordid tale sound like “a magnificent love story” to you?  There’s only one piece of evidence that convinces me that Henner is not simply taking advantage of a gullible young girl, and that’s the ending.

Fortunately there’s more to this novel than the affair.  Set in the Thuringian countryside, during the transition – after the fall of the Wall but before reunification- the concerns of Johannes’s family reflect the worries of DDR farming communities of the time.  Will Western safety laws and machinery standards force their antiquated farms out of business?  At the same time new opportunities arise.  Freedom of movement, for instance.  There are a number of outings to the West,  where the wonders of the consumer society become apparent. A brother who left the East is reunited with his family 25 years later. And most importantly, doors to higher education that had been closed to Maria, due to her refusal to pledge allegiance to the socialist state, are suddenly reopened.

Not that she has grasped this as the story starts. Perhaps those closed doors account for her lack of purpose and what I’m seeing as her captivity to Henner. It’s only when she’s entirely free from Henner aka the DDR that a meaningful future is possible.  Or am I reading too much into it?

imageThe first volume of Louise Welsh’s Plague Trilogy, A Lovely Way to Burn, is set in contemporary London.  The apocalypse is just beginning, arriving  in the form of a virus known as The Sweats.  People are falling like flies and only a very few survive.

Stevie Flint is one such.  You can imagine how interesting this makes her to the medical community, which she spends much of the novel avoiding because she is investigating the suspicious death of her boyfriend, the paediatric surgeon, Simon Sharkey.  It  appears that Simon has died of sudden adult death syndrome, a hypothesis that is called into question when Stevie inherits a laptop with explicit instructions to deliver to a named colleague – no substitutes accepted.

She arrives at the hospital to find her contact dead of the sweats, but other colleagues far too keen to take the hardware from her, and detain her for medical research purposes. Her suspicions aroused, she flees and her life becomes the stuff of nightmares. Not only on a personal level, as she tries to keep ahead of those now pursuing her and resolve the mystery of her boyfriend’s death but also because she finds herself in the midst of a disintegrating society.  It was this aspect that I found so compelling.

At first this pandemic seems like a severe flu – a number of deaths are inevitable. It soon dawns though that most people die – only a very few have survivor’s immunity.  Fear and panic spread and society begins to break down.  As this happens, normal and dystopian realities run in parallel, and, in a blink of an eye an individual can switch between them.

… suddenly she felt as if the wakening streets around her were an illusion that might be peeled back any time, to reveal another, shadow world that could suddenly drag you under without a by-your-leave.

Still it is a world in which a woman of Stevie’s resourcefulness can prevail, and while she may resolve the mystery of Simon’s death, it’s not without sacrifice.  More on that in Max Cairnduff’s review.  The question I want to answer is what happens next, and from the viewpoint of Clare Morrall’s When The Floods Came.

Assume for a moment tha The Sweats is the same as Hoffman’s – the virus in Morall’s novel.  (We can because Morrall doesn’t detail the symptoms – she’s more interested in what comes after.) Stevie, if she were a character in this novel would probably be esconsed with the majority of survivors in Brighton.  The big cities, including London, are now ghost areas, encircled by the barriers that prevented their populations escaping certain death.

imageOther survivors, like the Polanskis, live in isolation so complete that Roza, at 22, hasn’t met anyone her own age for twenty years. Their only connection with the outside world is through the internet with the survivors in Brighton and occasional clues that others pass through their vicinity.  They live in a block of flats, beyond the barriers around Birmingham, with their domestic animals on the top floor.  These cannot graze outside because of the hostile environment. The floods are now so severe that life outside is impossible during the winter months and dangerous, due to flash flooding, at all other times.

For twenty years the Polanskis have  been self-sufficient, but things are about to change.  The law states that Roza must marry by the age of 25.    Those who survived Hoffman’s are rendered infertile; those with natural immunity can still conceive, so Roza must do her duty for the country.  She has recently become engaged to Henry and will soon leave the family home for Brighton.

But change has a way of accelerating beyond our control and the out-of-the-blue arrival of Aashay is the catalyst for that.  It’s clear he has been watching the family for some time – he knows them all by name.  Does he harbour malicious intent or is he simply seeking a family to belong to?   He’s certainly full of charm, and, despite their initial doubts, he is accepted into Roza’s family. As well as playing havoc with Roza’s hormones, he opens the eyes of the younger Polanskis to life outwith their solitary existence, to an alternative lifestyle.  (There are more survivors than the Polanskis are aware of.) He persuades them to attend a fair, and that day out heralds an ominous unravelling.  The dangerous secret at the bosom of Roza’s family is about to revealed to the outside world.

At her recent AyeWrite! event Morrall explained that the novel’s genesis came with an  eerie image of an empty Spaghetti Junction (a huge tangle of interconnecting motorways – and traffic jams – just outside Birmingham).  From that image she builds up  a feasible world and hypothesis, so that by the time we stand on the empty junction with Rosa and her family, it feels entirely natural.  The injection of pre-Hoffman’s nursery rhymes serves as an anchor to the past, and, as Morrall say, adds beat, rhythm to the text.  There’s subtlety in the characterisation too, particularly of Aashay. A subliminal message is sent when Roza encounters Jacob Eppstein’s Lucifer during a surreptitious visit to the abandoned Birmingham Art Gallery.  Is this charmer really a devil in disguise? We can never be sure, not until the end anyway, and even then, we can’t be sure that the ending for the Polanskis is entirely positive.  Morrall playing with ambivalence for all its worth.

There’s no equivalent ambivalence in A Lovely Way to Burn.  Not that I’m criticising.  Welsh is writing a genre novel for a different audience. Thrillers are about pace, mystery, resolution.  Welsh delivers all three.  The apocalyptic  reality serves as a backdrop, it’s not the central theme as in Morall. Therefore the brushstokes are broader, but as I pointed out earlier, effective none the less.  The same applies to the characterisation. Welsh gives us what we need to know for the sake of the plot.  Yet, while the pace is manic, and the population is being decimated by the thousand, a focus on the emotional devastation caused by the death of Stevie’s friend Joanie highlights the human cost that each fatality represents.

Like a good bottle of Vin de Pays glugged down quickly, I read all 369 pages of A Lovely Way to Burn during a 4-hour flight. I raced through it, and that’s what I expect from a thriller. I’ll happily read the second in the trilogy.  When The Floods Came, with its meticulous attention to detail took me longer.  It had to be drunk slowly to appreciate its complexity, like an excellent Grand Vin.

Which do I prefer – Vin de Pays / Crime Fiction or Grand Vin / Literary Fiction?  There’s  room in my drinking / reading life for both. 😄

imageTranslated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

During 2016 I am not allowed to read an author’s new release if the previous one lies unread in the TBR. As Thus Bad Begins is calling me from the box of new releases awaiting my attention once the TBR Double Dog Dare ends on the 31st, The Infatuations demanded my immediate attention.

I’m new to the Marías fan club, having discovered him – thanks to the blogosphere – only last year. How would the crucial second date go? Very well, indeed. It wasn’t even hampered by the fact that we were communicating via Kindle – though this review might be. Flicking through an e-book is not the same as perusing a sticky-noted hardcopy.

The premise of The Infatuations is intriguing. A young woman breakfasts each day at the same café as a good looking married couple. She observes their happiness and begins to imagine their life together. This daily encounter becomes an anchor in her life. Then the couple disappears. She discovers that the man has been brutally murdered. When the widow reappears, she offers her condolences. This leads to her meeting the murdered man’s best friend, Díaz-Varela, with whom she also becomes infatuated. This is a relationship she will live to regret.

Nicknamed “The Prudent Young Woman” by Luisa Desvern (the widow, who observed her observing them), Maria displays the quality during her relationship with Díaz-Varela, for whom she falls, hook, line and sinker. Recognising that she is the one who loves, she lets Díaz-Varela set the pace, content to wait weeks between contacts. Gradually she realises that Díaz-Varela is as infatuated with the widow as she is with him, and she begins to fantasise about reuniting Luisa with her dead husband. Then she overhears a conversation at Díaz-Varela’s appartment that suggests that the murder of Luisa’s husband may not have been as it appeared …..

….. and in the one imprudent act of her life, she lets Díaz-Varela know that she has overheard the conversation.

But enough of the plot. While there is a mystery and concern for Maria’s safety, which drive the narrative and the reader forward, these are not the prime concerns of the piece. Written mostly in Maria’s voice, the text reflects repeatedly, nay obsesses, on the often unequal nature of human relationships and the ploys and games played in them. And the things we do or otherwise for love. Also about the timing of our demise. As MacBeth said of his lady:

“She should have died hereafter,” … meaning: “She should have died at some point in the future, later on.” Or he could have meant, less ambiguously and more plainly: “She should have waited a little longer, she should have held on”; what he means is “not at this precise moment, but at the chosen moment”. And what would be the chosen moment?

Balzac’s Colonel Chabert is another reference point. To those unfamiliar with the story, it is one of a man who, assumed to have died on the battlefield, returns home a decade later, long after his wife has remarried.

With these two intertextual references, Marías is being philosophical and playful in equal measure, sending out mixed messages. Did Miguel Desvern die before his time or is he about to reappear to thwart his friend’s ambition of winning Luisa for himself?

All is revealed, but only after Maria has chewed, digested, and ruminated at what could be considered a very leisurely rate. If all the repetitions were to be deleted, the novel would be less than half its length. And yet, I remained spellbound because I became infatuated with Maria, or rather the dichotomy between “the prudent young woman” that the world sees and her passionate interior monologue; the confident publisher with an élan for handing egotistical authors who have yet to win the Nobel prize (more playfulness) and the passive inamorata; that second contradiction cleverly mirrored, if gender-flipped, in Díaz-Varela’s relationship with Luisa.

The Infatuations took a while to grow on me, but layer by layer it did. As a result, I’ve added Marías to my completist reading list.

imageGertrude is a strange novel.  You’d expect it to be about the eponymous lady, but we don’t meet her until page 84.  She also disappears for huge swathes of the second half of the novel.  Which, to be honest, is just as well, because she’s a paragon of womanly virtue: beautiful, charming, passive, loyal,  long-suffering. Bland on the page.  What is Hesse playing at?

Responding to contemporary criticism, he said ” It may be true that Gertrude does not emerge very clearly as a character: to me she was more a symbol than a character, and at the same time the stimulus behind Kuhn’s development”.

The Kuhn in question is a crippled composer; his leg smashed in a tobogganing dare gone wrong, undertaken for the love of lady friend.  The aftermath is a tempering of his spirit.   So when he meets Gertrude and falls in love at first sight, rather than act on it, he is content to wait. He channels his passion into his compositions, which soon attract influential admirers, among them the opera singer Muoth.  Loud, brash, a drinker, a abusive womanizer, everything that the honourable Kuhn and the charming Gertrude are not.

And yet, Gertrude and Muoth end up married, and make themselves (and Kuhn) miserable. Although something spectacular results – Kuhn’s opera, his magnum opus, based on their relationship, is the successful fusion of the passionate artistic elements of Muoth’s character with Gertrude’s calm and principled nature.

That is the key to the novel and Hesse’s comments about symbolism.  In essence, Gertrude is Hesse’s exploration of Nietzschean dramtic theory as expounded in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. That high art and success can result only by combining Dionysian and Apollonian natures.  This was a very modish theme in 1910, and one that appears in the works of Thomas Mann, another German Nobel Prize winner.

That’s not to say that Gertrude isn’t an engaging read, or more accurately, that Kuhn isn’t a sympathetic character.  I quite liked him, although his caution and his conviction, not to interfere with others, was frustrating, especially when it was obvious that the routes being taken were slow roads to perdition.  Hesse’s decision to make Kuhn the central character is interesting.  It means we follow him, the careful, detached artist, who suffers but avoids confrontation of any sort when all the tumult is happening elsewhere. This gives the impression of a more tranquil story than it really is, and a readerly experience that mirrors that of the narrator.  As Kuhn says in old age

On growing old, one becomes more contented than in one’s youth, for in all my dreams I hear my youth like a wonderful song, ehich now sounds even sweeter and more harmonious than it did in reality.

I read and reviewed Gertrude for Hermann Hesse Reading Week hosted by Caroline and Karen.  Grant did too.

 

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Caroline and Karen are hosting Hermann Hesse reading week and, because my relationship with this author is rather ambivalent, I find myself full of curiosity about your relationship with him.  If you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions in comments, I think the resultant picture might be quite fascinating.

  1. Who introduced you to Hesse?
  2. How old were you when you read your first Hesse?  What was it?
  3. Did you read anything after that? Was this reading formative?
  4. What’s your favourite and why?
  5. If you were initially enthusiastic, has your enthusiasm been maintained?
  6. Are you joining in Hesse Reading Week and, if so, what have you chosen to read and why?

OK. Now I’ll answer my own questions.

  1. One of the members of the rock band Queen! I was – and remain – the biggest Queen fan in the world and in an interview I once read, one of the group mentioned The Glass Bead Game. So, off I went to the library ….
  2. I was 16 and completely mesmerised by TGBG, although I didn’t understand much of it.
  3.  I went on to read Steppenwolf, Peter Camenzind, Demian, Narziss (now Narcissus) and Goldmund.  I was too young really to understand the philosophy, but, this was in the time before I had decided to study German, so I now wonder in hindsight, if reading all this Hesse had something to do with that decision.  Discounting Heidi, Hesse was my first acquaintance with German-language literature.
  4. I loved Narziss and Goldmund, and in the 40 years since “meeting” Hesse, it’s the only one I’ve ever reread and I love it more each time. I take from it, and like, the  message that happiness comes from a balance between worldliness and spirituality.
  5. I mentioned ambivalence earlier and I think that’s proved by my not having reread anything other than Narciss and Goldmund during the last 4 decades.  I did go and see an Italian opera of Siddhartha at the Edinburgh fringe a couple of years ago.  The production was impressive but I was underwhelmed  by the implications of the plot.  Siddhartha may have renounced worldliness for the simple life, but in the course of reaching this destination, he left behind not one, but two pregnant women.  Very dubious behaviour.
  6. After that experience, I doubt I would ever have picked up Hesse again without the encouragement of Hesse Reading Week. I want to read something new to me.    I don’t have time for The Fairy Tales, so it looks like I’ll be reading Gertrude.

So now that I’ve spilled the beans, what about you?

 

 

 

imageAs I work my way through the pre-2016 TBR, it’s inevitable that I find links and connections between the books that are vying for my attention. This post finds two books highlighting the perils of our digital age – it doesn’t get more zeitgeisty than that.

Jon Ronson’s So You’ve been Publicly Shamed was the first book I bought during the 2015 TBR Double Dog Dare, with the intention of reading it immediately thereafter. …. One year later and here I am.  Just consider this a slightly more timeous review of the paperback release.  (31.12.2015)

Now, while I love my little corner of the internet, it is because I keep myself very much in that bookish corner.  I decided when setting up this blog, that the remit of my internet presence would be literature and nothing but.  And so it has been for nine years now (give or take a couple of minor slips), and I don’t regret that for a minute. I can be a pretty plain speaker in real life (I’m Lancastrian, after all) and, I do sometimes land my un-PC foot in hot water (particularly in e-mails where my tone and black humour are not always discerned by the reader.)

If that were to happen on the internet, it would be like having a cauldron of hot oil poured all over me.

Ronson also uses a medieval analogy: punishment in the stocks – a public, but localised shaming.  The stocks, he argues, have been replaced by the internet, primarily twitter.  However, the ramifications of an ill-advised tweet or selfie cannot be compared.  A tweet like that can go global in a couple of hours;  vitriol, scorn and  hatred heaped upon the tweeter and, depending and whether one’s employer feels that they are sullied by association, livelihoods can be lost.  The damage to one’s reputation and the psychological scars from the fallout can take years to heal.

Ronson demonstrates with two recent and very well-known cases.  In both instances no defense of the initial tweet/selfie is possible. But can the resultant hounding by anonymous on-line bullies and the inevitable shattering of reputations and confidence be justified? Thankfully, because, in my opinion, no-one deserves that for a single moment of lunacy, both ladies have since regained a measure of self-worth, sufficient to allow Ronson to use their cases in his book.  Their rehabilitation, however, needed legislative support through Right to Forget, and the technical expertise of internet gurus to reprogram their internet personas.  Their experiences have made Ronson rethink his own online behaviour – he freely admits to having participated in such virtual lynchings in the past (although he’s not specific about which ones.)

Ronson’s scope is greater than I have indicated.  There are examples of professional fraudsters, uncovered through internet research and some very seedy goings-on on the West Coast of America.   The genesis of the book  came when Ronson’s identity was spoofed on twitter and he couldn’t persuade those responsible to stop it – not until he harnessed the ire of the twitterati to fight and win his cause for him. Public shaming isn’t always bad, then , and we can all name cases when public institutions have changed course,  once the public have responded  en outraged masse to their nefarious decisions.

And yet, for individuals, danger and harm can be just a tweet away.

Food for thought, isn’t it?  Be careful what you post, tweet and, if you’re being silly, make sure there are no smartphones around.  And yet, is discretion enough in our post-Snowden world?

imagePatrick Flanery’s third novel I am No-One answers that question with a resounding negative.

Professor  Jeremy O’Keefe teaches history at Oxford.  His divorced wife and daughter remain behind in the States, and, he never really integrates into the academic life of his environment.  His relationships with other women are fleeting at best.  He’s a bit dull, if truth be told.  Then, one day – out of the blue – he is told to ensure that a certain candidate is accepted into the college.  It turns out that the candidate stands on her own merits – or, at least he kids himself that she does.  The episode serves to show him that other forces and agendas exist outside his own intellectual bubble, and it is the beginning of a series of events that brings O’Keefe to the attention of the security forces.

Not that O’Keefe realises. He remains oblivious through his Oxford years. The rude awakening arrives, once he has returned to the States, when he receives boxes of paper records detailing his phone, email and browsing histories.  At the same time, there are multiple chance, but uneasy, encounters with a man  who claims to be an ex-student. Professor O’Keefe has no memory of the man and begins to doubt his sanity.  So does his family.

At this point he begins to write his story, this narrative, trying to work out what he did to warrant this gross invasion of his privacy?  It’s not a quick read because the Professor is a pedant and he loves long, complex sentences full of erudite literary and historical references. It takes concentration and lots of patience to stay with him but eventually he divulges his secret.  Is it something that deserves what appears to be an over-reaction on the part of the intelligence services?  Not really, and yet I understand why it does.

The irony is that O’Keefe specialises in East German history and cinema.  Having spent years studying a communist surveillance state, he now finds himself victimised (?) by Western surveillance.  I question the word victimised because at one point a suspicion grew in me that O’Keefe was being selective in his telling.  Then I was persuaded to take his narrative at face value. In the first instance, by the title.  While I wouldn’t describe O’Keefe as an average Joe, he is an ordinary man, living a private existence.  Flanery’s point about the paranoia of Western governments and the naïvety of their citizenry would be lost were O’Keefe something other than that.  Then there is the decision on the final page.  He is about to go public with the skeleton in his closet.

In view of the experiences in Ronson’s book, I fear for him …….

 

 

 

At first I thought this post would be entitled “Imbued with obsession”, but as I read my way through the second title, I encountered many more psychological strangenesses than that. Let me explain.

Lernet-Holenia is an Austrian author from the mid-C20th.   Like many, he was blacklisted by the Nazis, but, unlike many, he survived those dark years. After the war he went on to receive many literary awards.  2 of his works from the 1930’s before he was blacklisted, both translated by Ignat Avsey, have recently been reissued by Pushkin Press (and at this point let me request more.) The stories are reasonably straight-forward but the main characters make some strange, puzzling decisions.

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No more so than in the 80-page novella Mona Lisa (1937), and I refer not only to the puzzle of that smile. Set at the beginning of the C16th, the young French nobleman Bougainville travels to Spain to wage war for Louis XII.  The costs of the campaign are to be met entirely by levies and reparations “be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, costly tapestries and such things”.  With this in mind, Bougainville, together with his commander, Le Trémoille, visit Leonardo da Vinci’s studio.  Whilst there, a pesky fly buzzes overhead. During the ensuing hunt, Bougainville opens a curtain to discover an unfinished painting.  Yes, it is the lady herself and Bougainville falls head over heels in love with her. He immediately begins to ask the questions that have rung through the centuries.  Who is she? Why is she smiling?  Not only does he ask, he investigates, doesn’t always like the answers he finds and this leads him down some very strange paths. Paths that are and would remain comical, if they weren’t to prove fatal for the poor man. Who in their right mind would let an obsession with a painting go that far?  But that’s the point, somewhere along the way he loses his mind. Nor is he the only one, as Lernet-Holenia points out in the closing paragraphs. Is that why the lady smiles as she does?

I was Jack Mortimer (1933) is the better known work, first released as a Pushkin Classic in 2013 and again in 2015 as part of the new Vertigo imprint.  In it, the eponymous Jack is shot to death in the back of a taxi.  The driver notices nothing (Vienna can be a noisy place) and so has the shock of his life when he discovers the corpse at the end of his hire. Instead of reporting the crime immediately, he drives away, disposes of the body in the Danube, and assumes Jack Mortimer’s identity. The consequences of that action are what drive the rest of the novel.

There is quite a long setup in which the taxi driver, Ferdinand Sponer, falls in love at first sight with a passenger, Marisabelle von Raschitz, a woman above his own social class.  (Spot the link with Mona Lisa?)  He begins to follow her around – it’s not stalking – it’s more like a puppy following his master, waiting for a kicking.  This despite being in a long-time relationship with Maria, a woman of his own class, who is  obviously  expecting him to marry her.

All of that an obvious prologue to the main Jack Mortimer plot.  For a long while I wondered about the point of it.  In the first instance, let’s just say that Sponer wouldn’t escape the scrape he gets into without having these two women to turn to.  Secondly, there’s an underlying theme of class.  Sponer and Marie are working class, Marisabelle is upper class and it turns out that Jack Mortimer is an American gangster!  If there is a lesson to be learned, it is not necessarily that climbing the social ladder is good for you. Thirdly there are multiple love relationships: obsessive unrequited love, unexciting but long-standing loyal love, and cynical married love.

Sponer’s adventure is not only a murder mystery but also a surreal Bildungsroman in which he must determine where he belongs and which kind of  relationship he wishes to pursue.

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