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

imageWinner of the 2015 Costa Biography Award

When Alexander von Humboldt, at the age of 30, took himself off to South America in 1799 little did he, or the world, realise that he would be there for 5 years and that he would formulate the theories and proofs that would shape and inspire scientists and thinkers for centuries thereafter. He would show that the earth, the sea currents, the air currents, the ecosystems are bound together in one living organism, a great chain of cause and effect. Disrupt one link in the chain and you disrupt the whole. He was the first to become concerned with the ecological damage we humans cause in general and with deforestation in particular. Not only that, he knew how to engage the public. His writings presented his findings in a way that was inclusive – blending science with literary flourish and sentiment to enable non-experts to understand his discoveries. His drawing of the natural landscape and the plant distribution in the Andes was revolutionary.

Geography of Plants in the Tropics (from wikmedia)

The books he published were magnificent. Lavishly illustrated, no expense spared. The production team consisting of the best cartographers, illustrators, typesetters and bookbinders available to him. By the time he published the first volume of Cosmos in 1845, they were collector’s items before they even left the presses and the rest of world waited breathlessly until a translation became available. (I’ve added an activity to my bucket list. I need to see an original one day. )

So how did Humboldt, the discoverer of continental drift, the magnetic equator and the inventor of isotherms we see every day on the weather maps, become “The Lost Hero of Science” in the English-speaking world? We may have chosen to forget him due to his nationality and the course of 20th century history. ( A supreme irony in that he was happier in France than in Germany and would have chosen to stay in Paris, had he not been dependent on his income from the King of Prussia. His inheritance was spent financing the South American trip.) Or we may have assimilated his ideas so completely, that their originator has been rendered invisible. Andrea Wulf wrote her book in order to find him, to make him rematerialise and to reassess his importance to our current understanding of the world.

Her book is a wonderful read, written in an accessible style that Humboldt would approve. Tracing Humboldt’s early years of restlessness and frustration, staying in Germany on the orders of his mother – no inheritance otherwise. Sailing to South America with Aimé Bonpland on that life-defining and dangerous adventure, one which Wulf brings to life. Returning to the Europe of the Napoleonic Wars, striving to remain apolitical until recalled to Germany to serve the king. His restlessness never leaving him. Making his final expedition across the Russian Steppes and into China at the age of 60! What a man! What a mind! His monarch, Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia once called him “the greatest man since the deluge”. I wouldn’t ascribe to that but I understand  the sentiment.

The final third of the book is devoted to the influential scientists, writers and environmentalists who took up Humboldt’s ideas and ran with them: Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. These chapters are as immersive as Humboldt’s biography, with every word proving Wulf’s point that the man who shaped the way we understand the world, whose centennial in 1869 was celebrated with parades on the streets of America but is now largely forgotten, deserves to be restored to his rightful place in our collective memory.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016


It is a truth universally quoted that Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) is the father of the modern detective story. Well, Germanist and translator Mary Tannert has something to say about that The Emergence of Crime Fiction in German (Chapter 2 of Crime Fiction in German).

imageHaving first explained the social factors that enabled the development of crime fiction in Germany, namely the late-C18th move away from a judicial system based on the extraction of confession through torture to one based on judges and examining magistrates, she points to the Adolph Müllner’s novella The Calibre (1828), one she has herself translated in the volume Early German and Austrian Detective Fiction. Unfortunately the anthology is out-of-print and a small fortune to buy second-hand. Fortunately though Detective Siddal tracked down a reference copy in the Glasgow Goethe Institute.

As a crime story written very much in the Romantic tradition, The Calibre made for an interesting and amusing read. ( I can’t help it – all those highly strung emotions make me smile.) Here we have two brothers, a stash of cash, a love interest, a bandit, and – remember the Romantic bit – a forest! And a pistol shot which rings out as the two brothers are fighting over the money. The younger one wants his inheritance to marry. The elder one isn’t for allowing it. After the pistol shot rings out, the elder, stingy one lies dead.

Ferdinand reports that a bandit has shot his brother and immediate evidence vindicates him. Second thoughts, however, rack him with guilt and by now a giddy, tempest-tossed soul confesses to his brother’s murder. It falls to his defence to establish the facts. Dr Rebhahn introduces reasoning or ratiocination to the case, and sets about seeking the physical evidence to resolve the mystery.

And there we have it, a ratiocinative resolution.  We’ll come back to that, particularly with regard to Poe.

For now, though let’s travel back in time with more German crime fiction; Mademoiselle de Scudéri – E T A Hoffmann (1819) and The Duel – Heinrich von Kleist (1811) being oft-quoted examples. While it’s tempting to argue that Mlle de Scudéri is the first example of a female detective, that would be a flimsy argument. Her role is pivotal in ensuring that an innocent man does not die for a crime he did not commit, but she doesn’t actively seek the evidence. It lands in her lap so to speak. There’s no detective at all in Kleist’s story, which depicts the medieval judicial system of trial by duel. That said, it is an exploration of whether truth can be uncovered by divine intervention, feeling or material evidence, and uncovering the truth is what crime fiction is all about.

It does appear that the precursors to German crime fiction as we now know it lie within the German Romantic movement. I hesitate to add to that corpus Schiller’s The Criminal of Lost Honour (1786), but only because I can never remember when Schiller fell out with the Romantics. What I can say, is that the familiar Romantic elements are there: the forests, the bandits.  This a must read for lovers of The Robbers, even if it’s not exactly the Robbers in prose. It’s also a surprising read in that it examines sociological reasons for criminality  and the downward spiral into hardened crime in an enlightened way.

The cards are stacked against Schiller’s protagonist Christian Wolf from the start.

Nature …. bestowed on him an appearance so repulsive that it made all women recoil on him ….

To seek favour with his beloved, he gifts her the proceeds of his poaching. Inevitably he is caught and sent to prison. Ostracised when he returns, he has no other options than to become an outlaw. From bad to worse is the only route open to him, and when he takes vengeance on the cause of his initial incarceration, there is no way back.

imageI read Schiller’s story in the anthology German Stories of Crime and Evil from the 18th Century to the Present, translated by M Charlotte Wolf, which contains three other early German crime stories. The first, A Noblewoman Amongst Murderers by August Gottlieb Meißner (1785) features Baroness R, a resourceful resilient lady, who single-handedly foils the robbery of her castle (and is a refreshing change from the usual Romantic female leads.). Christian Heinrich Speiß’s Mariane L – A True Incident from the Year 1788 (1801) tells of a judicial tribunal’s investigation into the murder of the 13-year old Mariane. Like Müllner’s The Calibre the emphasis is on witness testimony and hard evidence and it has more in common with Poe than Willibald Alexis’s The Pledge of the Three Thieves, published in 1845, four years after The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841).

imageWhich brings us neatly  to Poe and the claim that he is the father of all modern detective crime fiction? Do I agree? Let’s break it down using the evidence presented in this post.

Poe – father of crime fiction? No, based on the evidence of the 6 German crime stories discussed here, all of which predate The Murders In the Rue Morgue,  I have to agree with Tannert’s assertion that accepted notions regarding the parentage of the genre must be revisited.

Poe – Father of detective crime fiction? Tricky or in German Jein! I’m splitting hairs pointing out that Müllner’s Dr Rebhahn isn’t a detective – he’s an investigating magistrate, a combination of police detective and district attorney rolled into one. But he does solve the case using evidence and reason (backed up with a coincidental confession). No divine interventions or emotions at play here. So in that respect, it could be argued there’s a pattern for Dupin to follow, although I couldn’t tell you if Poe read The Calibre.

Poe as the father of all modern detective crime fiction? If we’re talking about a protagonist solely as detective, relying entirely on his superior powers of logic and reasoning, then yes. In re-reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue I was struck by how frequently Dupin refers to his favourite word – ratiocination. What I was less convinced by was the ease of his resolution. How acquainted could Dupin have been with the anatomy of an orangutang? That felt suspiciously like a suprarational deduction to me.

This post is the second in a series inspired by Crime Fiction in German: Der Krimi edited by Katharina Hall.  Coming soon Chapter  3: Austrian Crime Fiction.


Fresh from the book launch in Swansea, crime fiction blogger Mrs Peabody (aka editor Katharina Hall) has paid us a visit (along with her sidekick, Erich, the Bavarian duck). Seeing as this book is going to be a foundation stone in my reading for the rest of 2016, I couldn’t resist asking a few questions – particularly fiendish number 5.

What were your objectives?

When I started researching German crime fiction in 2006, I realised there was no comprehensive overview of the Krimi in English. This seemed surprising given that there was so much great German-language crime fiction already in translation – from Friedrich Dürrenmatt to Jakob Arjouni to Ingrid Noll – and sowed the idea of the book. The volume showcases the most interesting Krimis from the nineteenth century to the present day, and places them in their larger social, historical and cultural contexts, hopefully helping readers to appreciate the richness of crime fiction from the German-speaking world.

Who is your target audience?

We hope that the volume will be useful to academics in the field, but have also written very much with the general reader in mind. The first chapter is a standalone overview of German-language crime (which can be downloaded for free here! https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa25191) and the idea is that readers can dip into other chapters that interest them. There are chapters on early crime fiction, Austrian crime fiction, Swiss crime fiction, women’s crime fiction, historical crime fiction, the Afrika-Krimi (crime set in or about Africa) and the Fernsehkrimi (TV crime drama). We’ve tried to focus on crime novels that are already translated, and hope that readers will seek out lots of lovely Krimis as a result!

Did you have any difficulties finding contributors / or a publisher? Crime fiction is hardly an academic subject…

There’s actually been lots of academic work being carried out on crime fiction – it’s a really vibrant area with articles and books being published all the time. But these need to be less expensive if they are to reach wider audiences. Bridging the world of academia and the world of crime blogging/discussion is one of the main aims of the ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ blog, and it’s why we’ve made the first chapter of the volume available to everyone for free. We’re having giveaways of the volume and German crime fiction as well – spreading the Krimi love all around the world.

Finding contributors was an organic process over time, and they’ve been brilliant in terms of their commitment to the project. We’re a truly international bunch, based in Germany, the UK, Ireland, the USA, Kuwait and Namibia. As for finding a publisher – this proved to be remarkably easy. The University of Wales Press (just down the road from Swansea University) already had an established series called ‘European Crime Fictions’, with volumes on French, Italian, Scandinavian and Iberian crime, so we slotted in quite nicely there.

How much fun was this project? How many Krimis did you read for it?

Researching the volume was enormously fun. As editor, I must have read over a hundred Krimis that were new to me, and discovered all sorts of gems thanks to the expertise of the contributors. I particularly enjoyed reading social crime fiction from the 1970s by Richard Hey (whose novels feature the first female German police inspector, Katharina Ledermacher) and watching vast quantities of TV crime drama. A favourite was the black and white East German crime series Blaulicht (Blue Light) – I can still remember the tune of the police siren in the opening credits!

My own wishlist has grown exponentially (and I’m only two chapters in.) Could you create an essential reading list by recommending just one Krimi from each chapter of your book?

This is such a hard task! I could have created at least five different lists! But here we go:

Chapter 1 (Crime Fiction in German) – Jakob Arjouni, Happy Birthday, Turk! (No Exit Press, trans Anselm Hollo). This novel was published in 1985 and features the first Turkish-German private eye – Kemal Kayankaya – in German-language crime fiction. An innovative social crime novel with biting humour and an unforgettable investigator.

Chapter 2 (Early Crime Fiction) – Auguste Groner, The Case of the Golden Bullet (Amazon, trans unknown). This popular female author was a pioneer of Austrian crime fiction and created the first German-language police detective series. Joseph Müller investigates in this opening novella, originally published in 1892.

Chapter 3 (Austrian Crime Fiction) – Paulus Hochgatterer, The Sweetness of Life (MacLehose, trans Jamie Bulloch). This crime novel won the 2009 European Literature Prize and shows Detective Ludwig Kovacs and psychiatrist Raffael Horn working on a murder case in which the only witness is a girl too traumatised to speak. Like many Austrian crime novels, it explores the darker sides of small-town society.

Chapter 4 (Swiss crime fiction) – Friedrich Glauser, In Matto’s Realm (Bitter Lemon Press, trans Mike Mitchell). Originally published in 1936, In Matto’s Realm is the second in the landmark ‘Sergeant Studer’ series. Studer is shown investigating the escape of a murderer from a psychiatric institution, a setting that holds a mirror up to pre-war Switzerland.

Chapter 5 (Afrika-Krimi) – Bernhard Jaumann, Steinland (Stoneland/not yet translated). Steinland is set in Namibia, which was once a German colony, and explores the tensions created by the government’s land reform policy, which aims to return land appropriated during colonialism to its rightful owners. It features the wonderful Namibian police inspector Clemencia Garises.

Chapter 6 (women’s crime fiction) – Doris Gercke, How Many Miles to Babylon (Women in Translation, trans Anna Hamilton). This crime novel features iconic, world-weary Hamburg investigator Bella Block, who is called to a seemingly idyllic village to investigate two suicides that may have been murder. A classic example of the Frauenkrimi, which inspired a long-running TV series.

Chapter 7 (historical crime fiction) – Simon Urban, Plan D (Vintage, trans Katy Derbyshire). This ambitious novel blends police procedural, detective novel and alternative history genres. Set in a 2011 in which the Berlin Wall still stands, it explores East-West tensions as the GDR teeters on brink of bankruptcy. A biting social satire.

Chapter 8 (TV crime drama) – ‘Cenk Batu’ Tatort episodes. This groundbreaking set of episodes from the famous TV drama Tatort (Crime Scene) plays in Hamburg and features Turkish-German undercover policeman Cenk Batu. The episodes are currently available in the UK with subtitles via All 4/‘Walter Presents’ – Walter has described them as ‘Montalbano on speed’ (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/cenk-batu/on-demand/63253-001).

The Giant Krimi Giveway is currently underway at ‘Mrs Peabody Investigates’ and is open until Sunday 17 April.

I said earlier this year that I needed a reading project. Associate Professor of German at Swansea University, Katharina Hall, better known in the blogging world as Mrs Peabody, has delivered one, that will help me reach my target (40% of 2016 reading to be translated from German) without it being hard work.

imageAs editor of Crime Fiction in German, she has put together a selection of essays by academics and translators, including herself, covering the extraordinary range of crime fiction written in the German language. Topics include The Emergence of Crime Fiction in German, Austrian Crime Fiction, Swiss Crime Fiction, Africa in German Crime Fiction, Women’s Crime Writing in German, Historical Crime Fiction in German, as well as an overview of German Television Crime Drama.

I have browsed quickly and what really strikes me is that these essays are readable in a way that other academic writings often are not. (You know how it usually is, why use a word of one syllable when a word with five or six will do.) It is also highly dangerous. For instance, having read chapter 1, written by Mrs Peabody herself (I do hope Professor Hall doesn’t mind me referring to her in this way), I wrote down a list of titles in my TBR for immediate reading. I found 13. 13!!!! That said, chapter 1 Concepts, Developments and Trends, is an overview of Crime Fiction in German from the early 19th century to the new millenium. It covers a lot of ground, some of it not mentioned elsewhere.  (Edit: And it’s available to read for free online!)

On that basis, it’s not surprising that I pulled 13 unread novels from the TBR. But neither is it practical for me to read them before moving onto chapter 2. So this is how I’ve decided to proceed with my project. I’m moving onto chapter 2 right away and with each chapter I shall read 1 or 2 (or maybe 3) titles, summarising it all together in one post. At a rate of one chapter per month, I will finish the project in November. Fittingly because that will be German Literature Month.

I’m launching my reading project today to coincide with the official launch of the book in Swansea. I hear rumours that there will be lashings of German beer too! The chances are that, if you’re reading this, like me, you’re not in Swansea, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t join in the celebrations. Mrs Peabody is holding a giant Krimi giveaway. Hie thee over here before April 17 to be in with a chance of grabbing yourself a fantastic read.

I recommend all that I have read: (Links to my reviews) Alone in Berlin, The Sweetness of Life, The Murder Farm, Plan D and The Collini Case.

Stand by for thoughts on chapter 2 …..

imageHaving read 10 of Penguin’s republished Maigrets, I confess I’ve had enough. I enjoyed Rowan Atkinson’s recent portrayal of the man in Maigret Sets A Trap, but Maigret just isn’t dynamic enough for me. He sits around and thinks too much, and the plots are sometimes obvious. So for the 1938 Club, I chose to read a Roman Durs (a hard novel – although I think of them as dark novels). They certainly have more meat, typically involving a criminal,  alienated from his surroundings, with no hope of redemption.

That sounds like Europe in 1938 to me, although I don’t think that Simenon was consciously drawing a prophetic allegory of the political situation, even if many respectable citizens were about to be pushed over the edge into insanity ….

Kees Popinga is such a man. Married for 16 years, with two children, he works for a local shipping company. He has built his own house and is proud of it. The novel opens with a terrible discovery. The company is about to go bust, and, as Popinga has invested all his savings in it, he is a ruined man. His boss seems to relish telling him the hard truth, just before faking his death and making a getaway to start over.

This betrayal of trust tips the sensible Kees over the edge.  He casts off the shackles of responsibility and respectability.   With the money his boss has given in (in a fit of guilt), he decides to track down his boss’s mistress (a high-class prostitute) and make up for opportunities missed years before. She laughs at him, which leads to an accidentally fatal outcome. Popinga is no longer simply on a spree. He is now evading justice.

He escapes to Paris, but how can a Dutch murderer evade arrest? Fortunately he has plenty of money, can speak English, French and German fluently, and so can disguise himself. For a time. Inexorably, however, the downward spiral gathers momentum – not helped by his fixation with the woman he meets on his first night in Paris. Yet he remains unaware of being dragged ever lower due to his resilience and absolute confidence in his abilty to outwit the French police,

who seem not to be doing very much.  Which makes Popinga mad.  They’re not taking him seriously.  Like Maigret, they are just sitting it out waiting for him to give himself away.  Well, he’ll show them!

This psychological portrait of a criminal on the run and his descent into madness is the core of the novel. Bang on the money too. Next time an overconfident criminal starts sending letters to the press, pick up Simenon’s novel. It will inform you of the mind games behind the press releases and psychological profiling.  Police methods haven’t changed that much in the almost 80 years since Simeon published this.

It’s becoming a habit.  For the third year in a row, I’ve saved up a full series from Peirene Press to binge read over a long weekend.  It gives me an opportunity to see how they play off each other and assess them as a series, and my view of series 5 is that it is the best yet.  In each series so far, there’s always been one that didn’t gel with me.  That’s not true here.  Nor is that due to them being of a likeness because the books in this trio are as different as different can be.

Let’s start at the beginning.

imageWhite Hunger by Aki Ollikanen
Best Finnish Debut Novel 2012
Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016
Translated from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah

It is 1867, the second year of the last great famine in Finland, and the population is paying the price. It is estimated that 270,000 people died of starvation in Finland that year, and Ollikanen pitches us right into the midst of this suffering. Winter approaches with a farmer’s family fishing for food – the store cupboards are almost empty because the crop has failed. His marital life has been affected – his wife does not want one more mouth to feed. The next time we see them, he is dying of starvation and his wife, Marja is about to leave him to his fate and set out with the two children, Mataleena and Juno, to walk to St Petersburg in search of food. It’s a desperate action. The winter is harsh, the snow is knee deep in places, and they’re cold and hungry before the journey even begins. Nor are they the only ones facing such a trek.

Success depends on the ofttimes begrudging kindness of strangers, sharing the little they have for themselves, or giving them a lift to the next place of shelter. The gruel they are served becomes thinner, the bark content of the bread ever higher. The shelters they find – whether communal or private – are not always safe, particularly for Marja. Even well-meaning folk can do harm. (The stomachs of the starving cannot handle food in normal quantities.)

Contrasting with the experience of the rural migrants (can we call them that?) is that of the urban townsfolk. The difference is emphasised in the novella’s structure which alternates between Marja and her family and the urban scene. The townsfolk are not as badly affected, although life is far from easy for all, apart from the ruling classes. Attitudes to sex are more casual. In fact, so much so that Teo Renqvist earned my intense dislike for … well, that would be telling. Which was a bit unfortunate because I can’t give him any credit for his show of humanity at the end.

Returning to the structure. Ollikanen honours the victims of the famine, Marja, Mataleena and Juno by naming a book after each. For two, this means a book of memorial. For the third a book of hope. Spring arrives at the end of the longest winter. Add this to the language which is highly evocative whether describing landscape or the effects of hunger on the body, and it’s not hard to understand the Man Booker International Prize Longlisting.

The story has obvious contemporary political resonance – something that the IFFP judges valued, it seemed to me, above all else. It remains to be seen whether the MBI judges think likewise.

imageReader for Hire by Raymond Jean
Translated from French by Adriana Hunter

If a book lover ever needs a lightening of heart, this little gem is guaranteed to deliver.

When Marie-Constance G’s friend, Françoise suggested “Why don’t you put an ad in the papers offering to read to people in their own homes?”, my mind flew immediately to Scout’s successful foray into the same field in To Kill A Mockingbird. What can possibly go wrong?

Well, well …. and well again.

I don’t recall Peirene doing comedy before, but this is de-lic-ious. (Dear Nymph, give me more.)

Some mishaps are due to Marie-Constance’s naïvety, and others due to her “paragon” of a husband, who gives her free reign to behave as she will. And she behaves in some very dubious ways.

(I could sidetrack into a discussion as to whether indifference to one’s spouse is a virtue? But I don’t want to spoil the mood, so we’ll leave philosophy out of it.)

In addition to the farcical romp, this book delivered something entirely unexpected. Marie-Constance chooses to read from the French naturalists, and, because of the – shall we say – (mis)adventures that result from the power of this literature, I now have a curiosity to read them too.

Well, well … and well again.

imageThe Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Translated from Norwegian by John Irons

Ragna sat on her stool and shone, she shone and glittered and tossed her hair, so thick, so long was it that she could plait it, gather it in a ponytail, roll it up and let it cascade down again in long, soft curls. I stared straight ahead, pretended she wasn’t there, didn’t take any notice of her lapping up my humiliation – Mum cutting and my tears falling at every strand of hair that gave way before the scissors.

Afterwards, I sneaked over to the mirror unseen, alone. …. Ragna appeared out of nowhere and stood beside me. We stared at each other for a long time …. Nothing was said, but both of us saw, what our reflections had to tell.

What do the reflections tell? Ragna, the healthy, pretty sister, is full of promise, but already showing a propensity for psychological cruelty. The standing at the mirror is designed to drive a point home. Look at me, I’m not like you. It’s true. The unnamed narrator, at the age of 7, has survived a serious childhood illness which has left her disabled and unable even to grow a healthy mane. She is now entirely dependent on her parents. When the parents die 12 years later, the duty of care falls on the 23-year old life-loving and man-loving Ragna and with she too loses her prospects. Living in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world, there are no other family members, no social care services to ease her burden, which she carries with increasing resentment and rage.

Ragna dutifully looks after her sister, but with bad grace, never resisting an opportunity to inflict further humiliation. The narrator has nothing to do all day, but read and devise ways of irritating the sister to pay her back in some small measure. As this cycle continues for over 30 years, it needs a stranger to break the pattern.

Enter Johan who moves into a long deserted house nearby. Broad and tall and with a stomach well outside the band of his trousers,  he’s no catch but to the emotionally and sexually deprived Ragna, he is salvation! As their relationship develops, the narrator realises the threat to her existence. Of course, they want peace to enjoy each other. Of course, they’ll want to ship her off to a care home. Of course, she doesn’t want to leave the house she hasn’t been outside since her childhood. It is her world, her only world, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. So she mounts a campaign to thwart their every move.

Is this a miscalculation?

This is an intense, bitter and twisted tale, infused with acts of breathe-taking cruelty. Here are three people in a situation designed to bring out the worst in each other. And yet, despite doubting the reliability of the narrator (is she telling us everything – particularly about her own acts of attrition), it is possible, if not always easy, to sympathise with everyone. Abuse notwithstandig.  Life is complicated like that sometimes.

I think that The Looking-Glass Sisters may be my favourite Peirene. (Although I’ll have to re-read Next World Novella just to make sure.)


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