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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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It seems I was right when I said at the beginning of the year that I needed a reading project.

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Adventures through the TBR appears to be just the thing. OK, so I have yet to move on from the letter A, but I didn’t realise how many Andrews there were in my TBR (2 read, 3 to read) or even how many Austrian books  / novels set in Austria I had (7 down, 3 to read).  I have taken a small diversion, from A to Z as in Zeitgeist, having read Patrick Flanery’s latest, I am No One, and Jon Ronson’s So You’ve been Publicly Shamed, both of which concentrate on the perils of our digital age.  Reviews to follow.

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TJ’s 12 Germans in 2016 didn’t get off to a good start, unfortunately.  January saw me struck by a nasty lurgy and my brain had enough whirls and eddies of its own to contend with without drowning in those of the narrative in Sasa Stanisic’s How The Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.  I put it down at page 100.  I picked it up again last night but decided, after an hour, that it’s not for me.  The whirls and eddies are annoying me now and the hiding of the horrors of the Bosnian war in the naiveity of the child narrator(s) feels artificial.  Time to stop.  TJ got on with it much better.

Reading through the second half of the dare will be less systematic.  Adventures through the TBR will morph from A to H as the second book for 12  Germans is Judith Hermann’s Summerhouse, Later and Hermann Hesse Reading Week kicks off on 7th March for which I will read Gertrude. I will also be reading Vanessa Gebbie’s Storm Warnng for Caroline’s War and Literature Readalong and Teffi’s Subtly Worded for the Pen Reading Club on Facebook.  All of the above were in my pre-2016 TBR, so count for the TBR Double Dog Dare.  However with Ayewrite! in March there will be a number of exceptions before the end of the dare.

Finally some stats, to serve as a checkpoint on my goals for 2016.

Books read: 14.5
From the pre-2016 TBR: 13.5  (93 % Target for the year is 80%)
Books translated from German: 8.5 (59% Target for the year is 40%)
Books  culled: 71
Purchase allowance = (Books read + books culled)  / 5  = 17
Purchase allowance balance = 2

(We’ll talk about the purchases in April.  Right now they are stored safely out of  sight.)

This title should come with a health warning – particularly if you love cruises or are intending to take one in the near future. The warning: do not take this book with you. It’s terrifying and the terror starts on the very first page. Be prepared.

When I say book, I mean audiobook, or more accurately audio dramatisation. Fitzek has written a special script of his novel (not yet translated into English), in which traditional narrative is interspersed with acting dialogue and sound effects. I quite enjoyed it even if the sound effects felt a bit forced and obvious at times. (If I listened to more radio dramas, this probably wouldn’t have been the case.) Nevertheless, this, my second outing with Fitzek, was as compulsive an experience as my first.

The basis of the tale is this fact: Each year 23 cruise ship passengers or crew are lost at sea (most disappearances are explained as suicides). Among this number, in Fitzek’s world, are the wife and son of Martin Schwartz, who were lost 5 years previously in what was explained at the time as a murder-suicide. Since then Schwartz has been careless with his own existence, undertaking the most dangerous undercover missions for the Berlin police. Each mission more sordid than the next and Fitzek does not spare on the details.

It’s a relief when Schwartz receives a phone call from someone claiming to know what happened to his wife and child. The only catch is that he must meet her on The Sultan of the Seas – the very ship on which his family were lost.

Fitzek has said the following: “Every year cruise ship passengers disappear without a trace. Shipping companies claim, almost reflexively, that these are suicide cases, but many people have legitimate doubts about the validity of this – to the point where there are now law firms in the United States that specialize in this area. During my research I realized that cruise ships actually provide the backdrop for a perfect crime – a place with no police; surrounded by ocean – where evidence can disappear forever; but it’s also a world populated by ambitious people, keen to preserve the glossy image associated with luxury liners”.

This is the world which Martin Schwartz encounters while on his personal crusade.

There are times when he wishes he hadn’t. Heavens, there were times when I wish he hadn’t. I thought the details of his land missions were bad enough – though I have no doubt that these are similarly based on unwelcome facts about our world. What’s happening on the sea is the stuff of nightmares. Another mother and child went missing, and the company explained their deaths in the usual way. However, the severely traumatised child has since reappeared and is now being held captive below decks until the company works out how to save face (which may or may not involve killing her). Unbeknown to all, however, the mother is still alive. She’s well-hidden and being systematically and sadistically tortured elsewhere. It is horrendous but her experience is key. When the links between her and Martin’s wife become clear, you really have to hope that Nadia didn’t meet the same fate.

This is crime combined with full-blown horror. Gruesome certainly, and not my normal cup of tea. Yet I kept on listening. Fitzek knows how to hold his audience.

He’s also persuaded me that my natural disinclination to take a cruise is a wise one.

imageWinner of the Austrian Alpha Literature Prize 2012

Translated from German by Sheila Dickie

Taguchi Hiro is a 20-year old hikikomori – a young man who has not ventured from his bedroom for two years.  He has not spoken to his parents, having shut himself off from all human contact.

Ohara Tetsu is a middle-aged employee, who has just lost his job, but cannot “confess”.  So every day he dresses for the office, leaves the house, and travels to a park bench, where he spends the day before returning home to his wife.

There he meets Taguchi, who is just beginning to take tentative steps at reentering the world.  At first there is little communication,  neither wishing to break out of their shells, but gradually they open up to each other and the full extent of the shame they feel is revealed.

Who would have thought that conversations between two broken souls could be so spell-binding?

At first I thought this was a quirky read.  Then when I googled hikikomori and discovered that there are an estimated 1 million such in contemporary Japan, I realised Flašar is addressing a serious issue.  Ohara Tetsu’s shame at becoming unemployed is something I could feel, although perhaps quite as deeply.  It’s a fact of life in austerity Britain, no longer a point of honour.

The style – short sections, alternating narratives – makes for easy reading.  Yet, as the traumatic events leading to Taguchi’s breakdown are revealed, the cumulative effect is devastating.  Similarly Ohara’s story of his failures as husband and father is extremely moving. At the mid-point I was on the verge of tears.

The tragic losses endured by both shocked me.  Yet it was insightful details that got under my skin; the leitmotif of Ohara’s lunchbox, Taguchi’s realisation of the price his parents were paying for his withdrawal.  In order to cope, they too had become hikikomori of sorts.

For all their flaws, there isn’t an unsympathetic main character in these pages, just circumstances and societal expectations that crush the vulnerable.  While the main mood is profoundly sad, the final word “BEGINNING” sounds a hopeful note. And at that point, my defences cracked and I cried me a river.

5stars.GIF

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

 

 

 

imageEver bought a book for its cover? Would you have bought this one?

When I spotted this gloriously garish dustcover from 1968 on the shelves of a dilapidated, dusty charity shop in Dunoon, it promised old-fashioned frights aplenty.  And now, some eight years later, thanks to the TBR Triple Dog Dare, and the fact that I’m on a run of Austrian novels or novels set in Austria, I’ve removed another layer of dust and finally read it.

It was £1 well spent.

Not as quaint as I expected, although in places, itwas corny and unfeasible. Yet it proved a thoroughly entertaining thriller involving a chest of Nazi secrets recovered from the Finstersee (sinister lake), and the race to take possession of it following the death of the diver who brought it from the depths.  How many interested parties are there?  Closet Nazis, Austrian police, Austrian secret service, the FBI, the Russians, the Chinese maybe, (I was losing count by this stage), a family in it purely for personal gain and an American publisher and his lawyer.  In fact, the merry dance begins with a book contract gone wrong.

Crosses and counter crosses, in the days before computers, tracking devices and mobile phones.  Old fashioned leg work, signals agreed verbally in advance and passed on in the way a book is placed on a table.  The fact that the lawyer is a civilian who is allowed to take the key role in the pursuit of the chest is highly unlikely but he was such a well-groomed, courteous, honourable gent that I hardly cared, even when he couldn’t spot an obvious plant from 5 feet away. I was happy for him, when he and his new found lady love survived all the ruthlessness and peril and drove off into the distance at the end, because what is a thriller without a little old-fashioned romance?

Don’t think this novel is as superficial as my synopsis. Amidst the action are some touching psychological portraits of people damaged by the past.  It’s also quite well signposted who has the most to lose if the chest is opened, and it’s hard not to sympathise, once his history is revealed. As for the lady spy, orchestrating from the centre, well, she is one nasty piece of work.

I hadn’t heard of Helen MacInnes before, so imagine my surprise to find she was a top selling Scottish espionage writer in her day, with a husband who worked for MI5.  So there’ll be authenticity in the detail ….  Interestingly, much of her back catalogue, including The  Salzburg Connection, has recently been reissued …..

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

Summer Before The DarkHow long have I wanted to read this book?  From the minute Thomas reviewed it during German Literature Month 2014. I got really excited when Mel reviewed the English translation by Carol Brown Janeway during German Literature Month 2015. I think that makes it Lizzy’s most anticipated release of 2016.  Thankfully with a January release date (today!), I didn’t have to wait until German Literature Month 2016!

Was it worth the anticipation?  Yes, yes and yes again!

(Editor: Calm down, Lizzy, you’re meant to be reviewing – not gushing.

Lizzy takes deep breathes, and works out how to write the piece without the adjectives, wonderful, fantastic, superlative, etc, etc.

Pause …….. Thinks a bit longer ……. This is tough.)

I’m tempted to leave it there, with an invocation to every fan of Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun to go out, grab a copy and read it now.  Do the same, even if you’re not. You won’t read anything more illuminating about these writers or the extended community of artistic exiles that congregated in Belgium in 1936.  Nor will you read anything faster.  I sat down intending to read just the first chapter.  Next time I looked up, I had turned the final page. (168)

The summer of 1936 was a time for reflection, for working out what to do now that doors were closing in Nazi Germany.  Putting a brave face on it, enjoying the summer, each other’s company in the Café Flore, plenty of drink and a passionate, if extremely puzzling love affair (Roth/Keun).  Their worlds may have been falling apart, yet still they found the wherewithall to write literary masterpieces.  The supportive and collaborative community they formed that summer enabled that.  Weidermann shows how that community came to be, the dynamics involved and just how that period was the summer before the dark.

As a long-time Zweigette ( 😉 ), I offer this book as an antidote to the venom of that article written by Michael Hofmann. (See footnote.).  Yes, Zweig was a multi-millionaire, some of it inherited, most of it earned by his writings.  (He was the best-selling author in the world during his day.) Of course, this gave him a position of privilege.  Yet he used his wealth to support many less fortunate – such as Roth, who he bankrolled for 10 years.  (Think of all the masterpieces that wouldn’t have existed for Hofmann to translate, had Zweig not done that.)

(Editor: Lizzy, behave yourself!  You’re reviewing, not polemicising.

Lizzy: Sorry, Ed, but 6 years later, to the day, I am still outraged.)

The point I’m making is that Weidermann’s portrait of Zweig is sympathetic, a response to those who think him insincere, or a non-entity in terms of world literature.  In fact, Weidermann shows how much of a hand Zweig had in the some of Roth’s work.  (And vice versa.)

Now for a confession.  I’m not particularly fond of Roth or Keun as writers.  This statement is based purely on having read a single book by each: The Radeztsky March and The Artificial Silk Girl. But having now “met” the people behind the pens, I’m curious to read more, particularly the books they wrote during that summer of 1936: Roth – Confession of A Murderer; Keun – After Midnight, and, of course, Zweig – The Buried Candelabrum. Also Britta Böhler’s The Decision, a contemporary novel about Thomas Mann, who at this time in 1936, had not yet made his stand against Nazi Germany, and was ridiculed for it by the exiles in Ostend.

(Editor: Lizzy! I commissioned a review, not a reading list!

Lizzy: Sorry Ed, I don’t know how to review non-fiction without simply reiterating book content, and this book is so much more than a stand-alone read for me.  For a while I’ve been intending to delve deeper into the literature of this period. I have found my springboard and I shall be diving in for the rest of the year.  But as you insist on a final verdict ….. )

Absolutely fab-u-lous! (A modest amount of gushing is allowed, isn’t it?)

5stars.GIF

(Footnote: I refuse to link to it but search for Vermicular Dither if you must.)

 

 

 

Who_is_Martha.JPGWinner of the Adalbert Chamisso Prize 2013
Translated from German by Arabella Spencer

It’s no spoiler to tell that Martha was the last passenger pigeon who died in Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914; the day on which Gaponenko’s protagonist Luka Levadski is born. 96 years later Levadski is facing his own cancer-related extinction. The last of his line, he relates strongly to Martha.

What to do? Take the chemo to extend his life by a couple of months and wait out the end in his cramped appartment in the Ukraine, or, enjoy his savings with one last adventure in a luxurious hotel in Vienna. He takes the option I find rather appealing.

To hell with radiation theapy and all those other highly poisonous drugs. Instead, he would treat himself to a piece of chocolate cake every day in honour of his mother, a widow who, between the wars, had been in the habit of ordering chocolate cake for Levadski in Vienna’s finest hotel.

For Levadski, Vienna is the scene of his childhood memories; his mother and two music-loving aunts, who took him regularly to concerts in the Musikverein; a  place of happiness in contrast to the drabness of his life in the Ukraine, despite him being a world-renowned ornithologist. Decision made, the adventure begins and he kits himself out to die in luxury and style, and to confirm that we have a character on our hands,  his favourite purchase turns out to be a black polished drinking stick with an eagle-throat handle in sterling silver and a built-in glass tube for liquids of his choice!

Once settled into the Hotel Imperial, he revels in the luxury but cannot entirely escape the frailness of his condition or the loneliness of his old age – This is no Little Old Man Who Jumped Out of a Window, but a thoughtful poignant reflection on age and advancing death.  Nevertheless Levadski’s spirits never sag and he finds comfort in the understanding, even tender care, of his butler, Habib, and enjoyment in a new, if fleeting, friendship with another old man,  Mr Witzturn.  Their night out to the Musikverein and post-concert drinking session can be considered the highlight of the novel.

Interspersed throughout are his memories of an almost migratory existence populated wih many avian metaphors and similes. The musical heritage of Vienna and Europe is handled similarly.  This is a cultured and elegant composition abounding in originality.  I quote my favourite metaphor to demonstrate.

The pathetic sparkle and the paltry entertainment to which the old women desperately clung could be likened to a sparsely populated lake, where a mollusc counts as half a fish.

As Levadski approaches the unavoidable, the narrative slips suddenly into a surrealism at odds with the rest. I suppose this reflects the disorientation of a dying man, but it ruined the poignancy of the inevitable for me.  However, this is the only spurious ingredient in a very fine dish, which I recommend for those with palates desirous of literary haute cuisine.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

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