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imageNominated for the 2017 Dublin Literary Award by Utrecht Library

Translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchison

Elisabeth is a long-time divorceé.  Her only daughter, Coco, lived with her ex-husband and his second wife, and, as a result the mother-daughter relationship is far from close.  Yet when Elisabeth is diagnosed with terminal brain camcer, she feels impelled to cross the street and blurt out the news to her daughter.  Coco, for her part, then feels impelled to move in to care with her mother.

But this is going to be a far from cozy nursing tale, for both women are complex creatures. Elisabeth has never really got over the divorce; her ex-husband being the love of her life, not her daughter, who she felt was detrimental to their relationship. As a result she was a distanced mother, with parenting methods that would not be approved of today.   Nor does Coco appprove of them in her adulthood, remembering some incidents and taking her mother to task, only when prompted by the ex-husband.

Elisabeth’s view of this is that Coco didn’t mind when she was younger, why should she mind now? Not that we can believe Elisabeth, as she has no empathy for others, and there is that disturbing incident when Coco at the age of 5 purposely drove her bicycle through the window ….

The child becomes a woman with issues.  She is fat – emphasised multiple times in the text- and she is needy.  She knows her boyfriend is going to leave her. He’s a psychologist and does not approve of her moving in with mother. And Coco is desperate to hold  onto him. She craves for something to fill her emotional needs –  Hans (the boyfriend), alcohol, casual sex with strangers …. Hans is right when he says moving in with Elisabeth is a bad move.  It precipitates a psychological unravelling in Coco which mirrors the physical unravelling of Elisabeth.

The story is told in sections alternating between Elisabeth’s and Coco’s points-of-view, a structure which accentuates the disconnect between mother and daughter.  The Dutch title Dorst means thirst, and there are a number of motifs running throughout highlighting Coco’s thirst for love, respect, good favour, and, unfortunately, alcohol and other acts of self-sabotage.   In places, particularly when Coco goes right off the rails, it was too sexually graphic for me, but otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed this unsentimental emotional drama.

 

 

imageTranslated from Dutch by Sam Garrett

De Avonden! Gerard Reve’s 1947 masterpiece finally translated into English!  The book  that the Dutch Society of Literature has declared the Best Dutch Novel of All Time … finally translated into English!

It is a cause for celebration.  It doesn’t matter whether I enjoyed it.  Does it?

At this point, I wonder how to approach the it’s-not-the-book-it’s-me review …

Because if you look at the literary comparisons that have been made with Camus (can’t stand him) and  Knausgaard (just does not appeal),  you have to wonder why I was so keen to read this. In a word, nostalgia.  The fact is, many moons ago I read it in Dutch.  I know I did – I read everything on the syllabus of my Dutch course (yes, even Multatuli) but I have no memory of it.  Perhaps I struck it from memory because even then it didn’t sit too well with me … Or come to think of it, it was more likely a dreaded DNF.  At least I finished it in English.

So now that I have declared myself, I’ll tell you about the book and let you decide whether you’d like to give it a spin. Actually I should just let Tony tell you about it, because he has much more patience with this type of novel.

It’s 1946 and Frits van Egters, a 23-year old bachelor, is still living with his parents, who drive him crazy with their petty squabbling. He has a boring office job and there is no end in sight.  He lives for the evenings, which he spends mostly wandering the cold streets of Amsterdam, or chatting with his mates in their homes, or occasionally going to the cinema or the dance hall.  There’s no girlfriend, and, probably, no chance of one given Frits’s candour and  lack of diplomacy. (I’ll come back to that later.)  He is truly stuck in a rut.

The novel is structured over 10 days and nights and each day breaks down into time spent in the parental home, time spent outside either alone or with his mates, and time spent sleeping and dreaming.  (Dreams in fiction  – there’s another pet hate of mine.) There’s little said about the office, because there is little to say.

I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is all.

Everything is told in 3rd person but from Frits’s point-of-view – the minutiae of his mundane life, his thoughts, the long conversations anf his even longer dreams. There’s no plot as such and I would say no resolution, although Frits does make a minor concession to his mother at the end. (On New Year’s Eve, he humours her by drinking some cordial, which she had thought to be wine. Could this signal a truce on the home front?)

Yes, it’s bleak, bleaker still when you consider that it’s set during the festive season.  Frit’s loneliness smacks of desperation at times, buying 2 cinema tickets in the hope of finding someone to come with him.  But then, who can blame his friends for seeking the company of others? When he’s with them, Frits plays on their weak points, discussing their paleness, baldness, criminality, ad nauseam.  He’s a liar too. (Denying he had grassed up the petty thief Maurits.) I’d tag him as a wind-up merchant and avoid him.

And yet, he’s likely using attack as the best form of defence, to deflect from his own mania and distress.  Because this wasn’t an age of 24/7 entertainment on tap. How is a young man to pass the long dreary winter hours?   Books and radio will only go so far, when your father’s driving you completely round the twist with his slobby eating habits. Talking to Viktor,

“Affliction cometh forth”, Frits said in a solemn tone. …. “Porridge for dessert every evening .  My mother puts the sugar bowl on the table.  With a little spoon in it.   Everyone takes sugar from the pot with that little spoon.  What does my father do? He digs out the sugar with his own dessert spoon.  Still clean and unused, I’ll admit, but it drives me mad to see it, I’m going crazy!”

I must admit I chuckled there, and, in other places too.  For who has not been driven potty by a family member for something similar?

The human observation is sharp, the ennui palpable, and the dialogue entirely natural. Neither could Reve have found a more effective structure to stick the reader in a same rut as Frits.  Sam Garrett has, as ever, translated excellently.

To summarise, I can appreciate the literary merit of The Evenings, and I fully expect it to be a contender for the Man Booker International later in the year.  Though you won’t be suprised to hear that I don’t consider it the Best Dutch Novel of All Time. To that end I offer you this.

imageSo here I am, regaining my sanity after the recent book-culling saga. What better way of relaxing into the pleasures of my own book collection than spending some time with a kindred spirit …

he picked up a book and stroked his finger lingeringly over its leather cover. She (Violet, his second wife) watched as he opened it and brought up the splayed yellowing pages to his nostrils. He slowly inhaled. It was sensual, her husband’s experience of books, the texture, the sweet or acrid colours, the feel of a rough, uncut page.

Well, yes to all that, I would say.  But Violet is a content person. She loves the processes of thought, the flight of imagination.

Is this a basic incompatibility that portends a bad end to their fairytale marriage?

I use that epithet advisedly because that’s the way it is.  Violet,  a friendless penniless orphan, marries her somewhat older Lord, a matter of months after he asks what she is reading.  She is transported to a country mansion with an extensive library.  A year later she is a mother, yet not content.  Her husband goes wandering at night and what is that book, dedicated to his first wife, that he keeps locked away in his safe?

Set in the pre-WWI Edwardian era, when well-off women at home didn’t have enough to do to keep themselves grounded,  Violet begins to obsess on these matters, gradually losing her grip on reality. Delusions follow which render her a risk to her child, and Archibald, as was the way back then, consigns her for treatment in the lunatic asylum.

So far, so reasonable.  Violet’s illness could all be explained nowadays as post-natal depression, couldn’t it? Archibald is nothing other than a caring husband ensuring the then best available treatment for his wife.  That perceived emotional emptiness is just that – a percepton, isn’t it? Thus does Violet justify her husband’s actions, but, while in the asylum, stories surface of his frequent visits and his cosy relationship with the doctors …..

Following her release, matters deteriorate when Archibald installs Clara as nurse-maid,  he continues his nocturnal wanderings and former inmates of the asylum begin to disappear.  That prescribed bottle of laudanum makes it impossible for Violet to distinguish between reality or paranoid delusion.  A second trip to the asylum is inevitable. Which, given the pattern of the first, bodes ill for Violet and the solution of the mystery.

However, Thompson ensures there is sufficient concrete evidence – including a brief glimpse of a macabre jigsaw with characters from the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen – for the reader to understand what Violet cannot.  That Lord Archibald Murray is no fairytale prince, but an Edwardian bluebeard, complete with trophy cabinet.  Not the literal room full of blood-spattered corpses but a trophy made possible by Edwardian practices of bookbinding.

Thompson is excellent at subverting reader expectations and tipping the world on its head.  And so that paragraph on the behaviour and habits of a fellow tactile bibliophile, quoted above, now makes me shudder. Not entirely sure I’m thanking her for that.

Mistress of slippiness and suggestion she may be,  but there are places where the brutality – be it of Violet’s treatment in the asylum or the murders and subsequent processing of the corpses  – is viscerally realistic.  However, in this short novel of 159 pages, such passages are never gratuitous, nor extended.  Recommended for non-squeamish lovers of fairytales retold.

Eugen Roth’s poem Bücher (Books) tells how books, separated from their pals on the shelves, stored in bags, ready to vacate the premises work on the mind of their potentially-soon-to-be-ex ….. who takes another look, and then for reasons of beauty or content (I remember now why I wanted to read you) returns them one by one to the shelves, rejoicing in the act of self-sabotage.

The object lesson for book cullers is to remove the bags from the premises immediately before, as in the current case in point, 75 become 65 for all the reasons Roth mentions in his poem.  What Roth didn’t have to contend with, however, is the world of book blogging and reviews which then result in further search and rescue missions.  All I can say is that the remaining 64 (books not bags) are leaving the premises today before the number reduces even further.

Caroline, I’ve said it before, you are such a bad influence! 😂😂😂 It was your review of The Devotion of Suspect X what did it!  This poem is for you.

(Apologies to non-German readers, I can’t find an English translation, though Google Translate will give you a hazy idea of meaning, if you care to try it.)

Eugen Roth: Bücher

Ein Mensch, von Büchern hart bedrängt,
An die er lang sein Herz gehängt,
Beschließt voll Tatkraft, sich zu wehren,
Eh sie kaninchenhaft sich mehren.
Sogleich, aufs äußerste ergrimmt,
Er ganze Reihn von Schmökern nimmt
Und wirft sie wüst auf einen Haufen,
Sie unbarmherzig zu verkaufen.
Der Haufen liegt, so wie er lag,
Am ersten, zweiten, dritten Tag.
Der Mensch beäugt ihn ungerührt
Und ist dann plötzlich doch verführt,
Noch einmal hinzusehn genauer –
Sieh da, der schöne Schopenhauer…
Und schlägt ihn auf und liest und liest,
Und merkt nicht, wie die Zeit verfließt…
Beschämt hat er nach Mitternacht
Ihn auf den alten Platz gebracht.
Dorthin stellt er auch eigenhändig
Den Herder, achtundzwanzigbändig.
E.T.A. Hoffmanns Neu-Entdeckung
Schützt diesen auch vor Zwangs-Vollstreckung.
Kurzum, ein Schmöker nach dem andern
Darf wieder auf die Bretter wandern.
Der Mensch, der so mit halben Taten
Beinah schon hätt den Geist verraten,
Ist nun getröstet und erheitert,
Daß die Entrümpelung gescheitert.

 

 

I’m still working on my 2017 reading plans. Not that I’m short of ideas and ambitions,  I’m just struggling to come up with something reasonable! However, there is one given, I’ll be working through this list of German literature reviewed by @JudithVonberg on Youtube during the European Literature Network’s German month in December. (To find the video, search the European Literary Network channel and the date of the video corresponds to the number below.)

Links are to my written reviews. Asterisks indicate that I’ve read but not reviewed the book. Italicised titles are in my TBR (some of them have been for years). These will be given priority during 2017. As of today, the count stands at 8 read, 6 reviewed, 12 in the TBR.

1 Austerlitz – W G Sebald
2 Collected Short Stories – Franz Kafka
3 Back to Back – Julia Franck
4 Babylon Berlin – Volker Kutscher
5 The Sorrows of Young Werther – J W von Goethe
6 The Reader – Bernhard Schlink*
7 Chess – Stefan Zweig*
8 The Swimmer – Zsusza Bank
9 The Hunger Angel – Herta Müller
10 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
11 The Other Child – Charlotte Link
12 Baba Dunja’s Lost Love – Alina Bronsky
13 The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – Rainer Maria Rilke
14 Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
15 Where Love Begins – Judith Hermann
16 Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane
17 Heroes Like Us – Thomas Brüssig
18 Diary of A Lost Girl – Margarethe Böhme
19 Malina – Ingeborg Bachmann
20 The Bridge of the Golden Horn – Emine Sevgi Özdamar
21 The Robber – Robert Walser
22 A Sense of the Beginning – Norbert Gstrein
23 Memoirs of a Polar Bear – Yoko Tawada
24 The Devil’s Elixirs – E T A Hoffmann
25 Holy Night – Karl May
26 What Remains – Christa Wolf
27 Berlin Blues – Sven Regener
28 Twelve Grams of Happiness – Feridun Zaimoglu
29 The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Böll
30 My Century – Günter Grass
31 Gehen, Ging, Gegangen – Jenny Erpenbeck (Translation forthcoming 2017)

I don’t intend to do much prize-shadowing this year.  I intend to continue with my #gapyeartravel reading.   But when I saw the shortlist for the Costa Novel award (to be awarded later today) and realised I’d read most of it, what could I do but complete it and determine which novel would win, were I the sole judge?

If the usual rules hold true, the actual prize will probably go to the one I liked least.  Well, that would be Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I could not finish. It took far too long to slither anywhere, so at the half-way point I slithered elsewhere.  I would, however, award the physical object, Dust Jacket of the Year.  What a beauty!

Reading my review of O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place, I find I wasn’t dazzled by it either, though memory tells me that I enjoyed it more than my review would suggest.  Still I’m not going to overrule myself six months later.

Which leaves me to choose between Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End and Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata.  What a contest! Both authors have won the Costa Novel Award previously with  Barry’s The Secret Scripture going on to take the overall Book of The Year Award in 2008. That suggests that the  competition for Lizzy’s award is going to be a close-run thing.  And it is.  My decision will be reached as I write this post!

Let’s take them in alphabetical sequence.

Who would have expected Sebastian Barry to have written a Western? Not me, for sure and so finding myself transported back to the Wild West was the biggest surprise on the shortlist for me.  Barry is known for mining his family’s history, and so Thomas McNulty, the great-uncle who was involved in the Indian wars, makes his appearance in Days Without End.  Not much more is known about the real Thomas, so his tale of gradual transformation from Thomas to Thomasina, and his relationship with John Cole, is entirely fictional, written as a sympathetic response to the coming out of the author’s son.

The historical backdrop, however is anything but fictional, and Barry’s exploration of that ugly time is brutal and unflinching.  Thomas and John find themselves fighting in both the Indian Wars and the American Civil War.  Terms of engagement were different back then, and war crimes were frequent. Barry not afraid to show them. He also demonstrates where the white man could learn from the Native Indians in terms of generosity, compassion and a fluid understanding of gender issues.

Indeed it is the existence of the 19th century Native two spirits that lends credibility to the development of Thomasina.  Yet Barry pushes the plot too far in defence of a 21st century agenda – same sex marriage, adoption by gay couples, opening himself up to a justified charge of anachronism.

That said, Barry’s prose is in a class of its own.  In places, rough around the edges – Thomas isn’t an educated man; his narrative is at times matter-of-fact, at others full of unsentimental heartfelt emotion that brought tears to my eyes.  Descriptions of landscape that you can smell and touch.  Battles are related with an immediacy that have the reader standing sabre to sabre with him.  Simply breathtaking.

And so to The Gustav Sonata and perhaps the saddest character in the quartet of shortlisted novels.

Not that Gustav Perle realises his own sadness.  He suppresses it along with other needs contenting himself to empathise and cater for others.  It’s a pattern established from an early age by his widowed mother, embittered by the outcome of her marriage and the poverty of her widowhood,  and his rich, Jewish and talented school friend, Anton Zwiebel, who wishes to become a concert pianist but is too highly-strung to perform well under pressure.  In adulthood the pattern continues with Gustav becoming a hotellier, always catering for his guests, rather than developing a meaningful relationship of his own.  It’s not until late-middle age that Gustav finds a happy ending and becomes the person he always should have been. A bit of a spoiler there, but I was so happy for him.  Never has a fictional character deserved it more.

A sonata is a musical structure consisting of three main movements: exposition, development and recapitulation. Tremain structures her novel thus. The first section describes Gustav’s childhood in Matzlingen, Switzerland.  The second explains his mother’s embitterment, and, while it does nothing to endear her to the reader, it does explain why she impresses on Gustav the need  “to be like Switzerland. You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.”  The third section repeats many of the rifts of the previous sections though in different chords: the story of Gustav’s father’s heroism in helping refugee Jews from the viewpoint of his lover, Gustav’s continuing generosity to those who need his emotional support, and, finally the recognition of his own nature with some payback from those who have previously taken so much from him.

This is a very smooth and, in places, subtle read.  Tremain infers, frequently through repeated motifs, many drawn from the life and literature of Thomas Mann, who spent many years in exile in Switzerland on account of his Jewish wife.  In addition, the novel taught me things about Swiss history that I did not know.

Can I fault it in anyway?  Only in so far as the names of the main characters might be a subtlety too far.   An English reader would naturally not pronounce the final syllable of Gustav’s surname and would read it as Pearl.  He is, of course, an absolute gem.  Anton’s surname means Onion.  Correspondingly he is the cause of many tears and sorrows.

It’s a minor quibble, and certainly doesn’t stretch my credibility as far as some elements of Barry’s novel.  I’m sorry for that because Days Without End is the novel that bedazzled me while reading.  The Gustav Sonata grew on me while reviewing.  I think that its hidden depths  will better reward further readings. This last consideration tips the balance in Tremain’s favour. She would be the Costa 2016 novel winner if I were making the announcement tonight.

imageimage

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

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