CategoryDutch

Bird Cottage – Eva Meijer: a EuroLitNetwork review

It has been a while, but I’m pleased to be back at the European Literature Network for this month’s #RivetingReviews section. The book I’m reviewing is Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer (translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett). It’s a novel about the life of a historical figure who was unknown to me: Gwendolen (Len) Howard, a concert violinist who, aged 40,changed her life and moved to a Sussex cottage to study the birds in her garden. She published two books, and her ideas were ahead of her time, but her work was not taken seriously by the scientific establishment.

Bird Cottage is a fascinating story; click here to read my review in full.

Book details

Bird Cottage (2016) by Eva Meijer, tr. Antoinette Fawcett (2018), Pushkin Press, 256 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

You Have Me to Love – Jaap Robben: a review for #BoekenweekUK

Welcome to the final stop on World Editions’ blog tour for Boekenweek, celebrating Dutch literature. Today I’m reviewing You Have Me to Love by Jaap Robben (translated by David Doherty). Robben is a poet, playwright and children’s author; Birk (to use the title of the Dutch version) is his first novel for adults. It won the 2014 Dutch Booksellers Away and the Dioraphte Prize. Having read the book, it’s not hard to see why.

Our narrator is young Mikael Hammermann, who lives with his parents, Dora and Birk, on an island somewhere between Scotland and Norway. There are only three houses on the island, and one of those is empty. Groceries arrive by boat every two weeks; Mikael is home-schooled, at least enough to do well in the tests that are sent to him periodically (and which he is allowed to complete in pencil, so they can be corrected before returning). Robben never places the island in a true geographical context, so throughout there’s a sense of dislocation which really comes into its own as the novel progresses.

The Hammermanns’ world is upended when, one day, Birk vanishes into the sea. The search for him yields nothing, though Mikael begins to see a tiny version of his father about the house – that is, until he’s forced to confront and reveal the full circumstances of Birk’s disappearance.

The rest of the novel chronicles life without Birk for mother and son. Dora’s attitude switches from blaming Mikael to something that he can’t quite read: for example, at one point Mikael’s mother announces abruptly that they’re going to swap bedrooms, ostensibly because he’s growing up and needs the bigger bed – but it still seems a strange thing to him. For his part, Mikael starts to help out the Hammermanns’ neighbour, Karl, with his fishing boat; though Dora is not keen, perhaps from a sense of possessiveness (for whom, is an open question). Mikael also attempts secretly to raise a gull chick in the island’s empty house, which is perhaps his way of proving himself to himself.

Jaap Robben

You Have Me to Love has a number of emotional turns that I wasn’t expecting – it’s really quite affecting. If you’d like a taste of the writing, Anne posted an extract from Doherty’s translation at Random Things Through My Letterbox yesterday. There’s also an animated short based on the book, which you can see here.

Book details

You Have Me to Love (2014) by Jaap Robben, tr. David Doherty (2016), World Editions, 256 pages, paperback (review copy).

World Editions Dutch literature blog tour for Boekenweek 

Boekenweek is an annual celebration of Dutch literature which has been held in the Netherlands since 1932. To mark Boekenweek this year, the publisher World Editions has organised a blog tour for three Dutch authors: Renate Dorrestein, Esther Gerritsen, and Jaap Robben. I’ll be taking part on 15 March, with a review of Jaap Robben’s novel You Have Me to Love. However, the tour starts today, with a profile of Esther Gerritsen over at Books By Women. You can see the other stops on the blog tour in the poster below (click the image to enlarge).

Peirene’s Fairy Tales: The Man I Became

verhelstI got a bit behind with this year’s Peirene Press books, so I thought I’d blog them all in a row. A Belgian novel begins the 2016 series, which has the overall title of 2016 ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’. Whatever you might  anticipate for the start of that series, chances are you’re not expecting the tale of a talking gorilla…

The narrator of Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became used to live in the trees, until he and other members of his family were captured and taken to the ‘New World’. There, they were taught to speak, made to dress like humans, and set to work in a theme park named Dreamland. There’s no proper rationale for all this, nor does there need to be: we’re dealing with a timeless space in which this can happen, and the matter-of-fact tone in David Colmer’s translation sells it completely.

It’s tempting to try to read Verhelst’s novel as an allegory, and there are certainly some scenes that lend themselves to a real-world interpretation, such as the image of gorillas roped together in a forced march across the desert. Ultimately, though, I think The Man I Became has to be taken on its own terms, because it creates its own reality so fully. For me, the key question raised by the book is: what does it mean to be human, exactly? The animals taken to Dreamland are given different D-shaped pins to wear depending on their rank, and “people with two gold Ds pinned to their chests were fully fledged humans.” So, if humanity can be granted with the gift of a badge, what does it really mean?

This is where the ‘end of innocence’ comes in, as Verhelst’s narrator realises the truth about Dreamland, and has to decide what kind of person he wants to be. The Man I Became is an intriguing start to Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, one that left me wondering what would come next. We’ll find out in a few days’ time.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Man I Became (2013) by Peter Verhelst, tr. David Colmer (2016), Peirene Press paperback.

The Dyslexic Hearts Club by Hanneke Hendrix

DyslexicHeartsThis is the first novel to appear in English by Dutch writer Hanneke Hendrix (the translation is by David Doherty). It has a delightfully dark streak of humour that put me in mind of Alina Bronsky’s work – always a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

Our narrator, Anna van Veen, wakes up in hospital with burns and a collapsed lung. She is sharing a room with two other burn patients; this isn’t necessarily the best situation for Anna, because she likes her own company:

When I stayed at home, people thought it reflected on them, that I meant something by it, that there was something wrong with them. You might think you’re playing the lead, the star of your own show, but when it comes right down to it you’re mostly just a bit player in other people’s lives. That’s how I see it, in any case.

She’s also not the best reader of people (in her husband’s words, she has a ‘dyslexic heart’). Still, here she is, with a couple of other misfits: a grouchy old woman named Vandersteen; and a younger woman who’s still too ill to speak (it turns out later that these two are named Anna as well). Something’s not quite right, though: the women’s room is guarded by a police officer; and the nurses who attend them seem less sympathetic to their situation than might be expected.

The events that led the trio to their hospital room are only gradually revealed – though things ramp up in the second half, when the women go on the run, and Anna goes from a ‘bit player’ to the uneasy co-star of her own road movie. I’m being cagey about the details because so much of the enjoyment of The Dyslexic Hearts Club comes from the uncertainty of wondering where it’s going to go. But I will say that it was worth the journey, and I’ll be looking out for more of Hendrix’s work in the future.

Elsewhere

  • A review of The Dyslexic Hearts Club at Poppy Peacock Pens.
  • An article by Hendrix about the novel at European Literature Network.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Dyslexic Hearts Club (2014) by Hanneke Hendrix, tr. David Doherty (2016), World Editions paperback

Bert Wagendorp, Ventoux (2013/5)

Ventoux

Cycling is concrete and manageable. A bike, a road, a man: nothing could be simpler. In cycling you need only call on the top layer of your brain and introspection is not immediately  necessary, Sometimes exhaustion ensures that images rise to the surface which you had forgotten you were carrying with you, but you can always dismiss them as exhaustion-induced hallucinations.

– from Ventoux by Bert Wagendorp (translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent), which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

IFFP 2015: Fois and Mortier

FoisMarcello Fois, Bloodlines (2009)
Translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella (2014)

Bloodlines is the story of a Sardinian family through the first half of the twentieth century – but not a family linked by blood. Michele Angelo Chironi and Mercede Lai were both orphans, and, even though he was adopted by a local blacksmith, Michele Angelo kept the surname given to him at the orphanage. So the Chironi family starts at the turn of the century, and the story of Bloodlines is the story of its first faltering steps through war, mortality, and socio-political change.

Though there are tumultuous events in the background, the focus is always on what they mean for the Chironis, and there is a sense that the family’s struggles are a reflection of wider Sardianian society coming to terms with the changes of modernity and gradually becoming more of a part of Italy (if I were more certain of the history, I might suggest that the family’s seeking to establish itself from effectively nothing reflects the coming together of Italy as a nation-state). There are frequent reminders from Fois’s narrator that this is a story, and therefore selected and shaped – there are many other stories that could be told about other families. Silvester Mazzarella’s translation captures the tone of being slightly distanced from events that occasionally – often tragically – come close to home. All in all, I very much enjoyed Bloodlines and I’d be happy to see it progress to the IFFP shortlist.

Mortier

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping (2008)
Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (2014)

Belgian author Mortier  offers another personal approach to the early twentieth century, this time through the eyes of Helena Demont, an old woman in the present looking back on her life before and during the First World War. It begins as a comfortable bourgeois existence, before the German invasion sends Helena to France,, and the farm of her mother’s family. The experiences of Helena’s brother in battle and convalescence, and her journeys with an English photographer whom she falls for, will bring Helena – and us – closer to the horrors of the war.

Paul Vincent’s translation is rich and dense – indeed, at times (especially towards the beginning) I found the prose a little too over-egged. But the realities of war-ravaged Flanders are rendered vividly indeed, and Helena’s emphasis on the nature of memory underlines that even such dark moments of history will eventually fade into shadows and exist, for good or ill, only in our recollections. It wouldn’t at all surprise me to see While the Gods Were Sleeping make the IFFP shortlist, and I don’t think I’d mind if it did.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.

Sworn Virgin and Bonita Avenue

Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin (2007)
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (2014)

edsvIn 2001, Hana Doda flies from Albania to the US, where she has been invited to live with her cousin’s family – but her neighbouring passenger calls her ‘Mr’, and Hana is travelling as Mark Doda. Hana is a ‘sworn virgin’: a series of events in 1986, including her dying uncle’s demand that she abandon her studies in the city to marry a village boy, led her to follow an ancient custom which allowed her to live as and have the status of a man, on condition of lifelong celibacy. Now, in America, Hana has the opportunity to leave Mark Doda behind – if she can learn how.

Elvira Dones is an Albanian writer and film-maker who now lives in the US and writes in Italian; she has previously made a documentary about sworn virgins, but this novel is very much a study of Hana’s character specifically. Dones makes the complexity of Hana’s situation clear: it’s not just that Hana doesn’t want to lose her independence by marrying; it’s also that she loves her uncle deeply, and doesn’t want something to happen which would put that love at risk.

Hana’s gender identity also remains complex for her. Clarissa Botsford’s translation shifts between ‘she’ and ‘he’ at times, emphasising that Hana cannot settle into one persona. Though it seems clear enough that Hana was uneasy in the role of Mark (‘that man was only a carapace,’ p. 178), she also finds it difficult to establish a new self-identity as a woman. And she has to adjust to life in a new country: the life of her cousin’s daughter Jonida may be as remote from Hana as Hana’s life studying in the city was from her uncle’s in the village.

So, Sworn Virgin digs deeply into its protagonist’s psychology, and delineates the contours of her world in some detail. Strikingly, though, there are some key aspects of Hana’s life that we never see; for example, she kept a diary of her years living alone as Mark – but we don’t get to read any of it. Even after all that we’ve seen, the novel seems to say, the true heart of a person must remain private.

Sworn Virgin will be published by And Other Stories on 13 May.

***

Peter Buwalda, Bonita Avenue (2010)
Translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder (2014)

pbbaFrom the outside, Peter Buwalda’s Bonita Avenue may appear to be a fairly straightforward family saga: a great slab of a book (538 large-format pages), which begins with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. And the young news photographer, Aaron Bever, is as intimidated by the celebrated mathematician, Siem Sigerius, as you might anticipate. But Aaron swiftly notices the cauliflower ears which are a mark of Sigerius’ past commitment to judo; this is the first of many details that set the book off kilter. Then this meeting becomes a memory, occasioned by the now-single Aaron seeing his ex Joni’s barely-recognisable mother on a train some years later – and that indicates something of how Bonita Avenue will be told: in a complicated knot of perspective and memory that mirrors the knots whose mathematics Sigerius studied.

So Bonita Avenue isn’t quite what it appears to be at first; which is appropriate for a novel whose characters pretty much all have their secrets. We discover, for example, that Sigerius is really Joni’s stepfather, and has a biological son who’s in prison; and that Joni and Aarojn were not quite as squeaky-clean as Sigerius liked to think. These (and more) revelations are handled very well indeed, as Buwalda piles layer upon layer of story, constantly reconfiguring what we thought we knew. Jonathan Reeder’s translation is also key to this, as it dances back and forth between past and present tense, first- and third-person narration, without missing a step.

Perspective in Buwalda’s novel is constantly being destabilised: we read from the viewpoints of Aaron, Sigerius, and Joni; but we know something about each of them that causes us – for at least part of the book – to question the truth of what we’re reading. Bonita Avenue twists and turns and shifts to the very end; it’s such an intriguing delight.

Bonita Avenue is published by Pushkin Press.

Four tales of war

Monsieur le CommandantIn Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur le Commandant (2011; translated from the French by Jesse Browner, 2013), it is 1942 when Paul-Jean Husson – a respected writer and member of l’Académie française – writes to his local SS officer, unable to remain silent any longer. Husson begins his story ten years earlier, when his son introduced him to his new love: a beautiful blonde German girl named Ilse Wolffsohn, whom Husson later discovered to be Jewish. Husson was immediately attracted to Ilse, an attraction that only intensified as the years went by; all the while, he remained a Nazi sympathiser, regularly publishing anti-Semitic articles. But matters would eventually come to a head; and Husson’s letter to the Commandant is the only way forward he can see.

Monsieur le Commandant is an uncompromising book, which confronts the implacability and inherent contradictions of its protagonist’s worldview head-on: Husson is a character who has no qualms about describing graphic violence or venting his hatred, and the results of that are right there on the page. The novel becomes a grim, inexorable march towards a bitterly ironic ending; the weight of history bears down on our reading; but its starkness gives Slocombe’s book a power of its own.

***

King of Hearts

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall (2006; translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm, 2013) is a view of 1942 from Warsaw. There are perhaps two things that matter most to Izolda: the love of her husband Shayek, and finding a way out of the Warsaw Ghetto. When Shayek is imprisoned, Izolda’s love for him leads her to do whatever she can to free him; and what she’s prepared to do seems almost without limit – she hides her identity and religion, smuggles goods into the ghetto… Even though she’s captured more than once, she refuses to give up.

In contrast with Monsieur le Commandant’s harsh precision, the tone of Krall’s book is somewhat hazier; told in a series of vignettes, the choppiness of its structure gives the text a dream-like quality, which enhances the sense of the Holocaust as something larger than those caught up in it can truly comprehend. There are moments of horror (made all the more effective by the subdued tone in which they’re written), but a deep sense of love as well. We know from several chapters within the book that Izolda survives into old age, but even then she finds herself dwelling on the past and what might have been. Chasing the King of Hearts is the story of a hard-won personal victory, and the mixed consequences it brings.

***

News from BerlinHusson and Izolda could be seen as being at two opposite ends of a continuum of experience of World War Two, a continuum that Oscar Verschuur – the protagonist of Otto de Kat’s News from Berlin (2012; translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke, 2014) – might (at first glance, anyway) appear to be completely outside. Oscar is a Dutch diplomat in Switzerland, well away from the day-to-day realities of the war. That’s until his daughter Emma visits from Berlin, with information from her German husband Carl, a civil servant who covertly opposes the Nazi regime:  an invasion of Russia is planned, codenamed Barbarossa. Now Oscar must decide whether to disclose this information, knowing that to do so may place Emma and Carl in danger.

Relationships, it seems to me, are at the heart of News from Berlin: Oscar’s relationship with his wife Kate is pretty lukewarm and distant (literally so, as she’s currently a nurse in London). Both characters themselves drawn to someone else: he to Lara, a free-spirited Dutch woman he meets in a village hotel; she to Matteous, a wounded Congolese soldier whom she helps to treat. There’s a sense that both of Verschuurs are searching for something in these other people, not that they’re necessarily going to find it (Kate especially comes to realise how it hard it would be for Matteous to adapt to a life in London). Interestingly, Oscar’s new attraction draws him away from the reality of the war, whilst Kate’s draws her towards it; this mirrors their instinctive feelings about the Barbarossa dilemma. As a diplomat, Oscar’s work is fundamentally about relationships on a grand scale; the choice he now has to make brings that work down to the most intimate of levels. Like Slocombe and Krall in their books, de Kat explores the personal effects of war, how individual lives are shaped by conflict.

***

Wake

War’s effect on individuals is also the focus of Anna Hope’s debut, Wake (2014), which is set in the aftermath of World War One – specifically in the five days leading up to the parading of the Unknown Warrior through London in 1920. Hope tells of three women: Hettie, a dance instructress who becomes intrigued by a charismatic man she meets at the Hammersmith Palais; Evelyn, who works at the Pensions Office and has a quite a tense relationship with her army-captain brother – but still wants to know why a man comes to her office asking after him; and Ada, a housewife grieving for her son lost in the war, who receives a visit from a boy who appears to know of him.

All three of Hope’s protagonists have seen their lives changed by war: Hettie’s brother is affected by shell-shock, but the world of the dance instructress has opened a new avenue in her own life; Evelyn lost her partner in the war and now finds herself, as an unattached woman nearing 30, outside of social norms; for Ada, it’s not so much a case of needing to find a new path as of coming to terms with the one she has travelled. In Wake, the arrival of the Unknown Warrior is presented as a moment when the British people collectively took stock of the war and its consequences, a recognition of and reflection on the changing times; this is also what Hope does individually for her characters. But there is also the sense that change continues; and, indeed, the women’s stories go on beyond the final page of this vivid novel.

***

Links

Monsieur le Commandant
Interview with Romain Slocombe by Gallic Books.
Other reviews: A Life in Books; These Little Words; The Friendly Shelf; Literary Relish.

Chasing the King of Hearts
Interview with Hanna Krall by PEN Atlas.
Other reviews: Andrew Blackman; Sabotage Reviews; A Discount Ticket to Everywhere; Tony’s Reading List.

News from Berlin
Other reviews: 1streading; Lucy Popescu for the Independent.

Wake
BBC interview with Anna Hope (and Judith Allnatt, author of The Moon Field)
Other reviews: For Winter Nights; Book Oxygen; The Unlikely Bookworm; Cleopatra Loves Books.

“A warm meal that was growing cold”

Herman Koch, The Dinner (2009/12)
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

See four people dining in a restaurant: they’re doing something inherently private – eating together, talking – yet in a public place. The boundary of personal space grows blurred when the floor manager leans in close to point out the different ingredients of each dish. The emphasis he places on provenance reminds us that this is not just a meal; it’s a performance, theatre on a plate – or so the restaurant would like its diners to think.

The tension between public and private, and the act of weighing up one’s options in the knowledge that someone is looking on, are constant themes rumbling under the events of Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner. The two couples in this case are Paul (our narrator) and Claire, Serge and Babette. Paul is somewhat reticent to confide in us: at first, Serge and Babette are simply ‘the Lohmans’ only a couple of chapters later do we learn that Serge is Paul’s brother, and later still that Serge is leader of the opposition party, and a likely future prime minister. Yet Paul is at pains to emphasise that he’s not going to name the restaurant where the four met. Clearly, there is familial tension here, and something that Paul does not want to become known.

Eventually, we come to it: Paul’s son Michel, and Serge’s son Rick, have been captured on CCTV attacking a homeless woman; the purpose of the meal is for the Lohmans to discuss what should be done. That’s the theory, anyhow. But Paul’s stalling tactics delay them, and once the discussion starts, it becomes clear that the incident is being used by the brothers for a curious and uncomfortable game of one-upmanship (Paul is secretly proud that his boy was the one in charge). The Dinner becomes a study of two men (and Paul’s attention is indeed primarily on himself and Serge) attempt to save face whilst still trying to get one over on the other, as every solution to the Lohmans’ predicament that’s mooted is first viewed in those terms.

What makes Koch’s novel even more uncomfortable to read is the sense that we’re only scratching the surface of what is going on here. Paul increasingly reveals himself to be a violent and prejudiced individual, and he doesn’t seem to mind who knows, for all that he watches his tongue in other ways. This may then naturally lead us to wonder what else we don’t know about the other characters – by novel’s end, we only have a partial picture of what has happened and what may be to come; and Claire has evidently been holding things back from Paul, so that could all be just for starters…

For me, it’s the ordinariness of the situation that really makes The Dinner work, the way that Koch insidiously disrupts this family gathering. I gather that The Dinner is the first of Koch’s books to be translated into English; I hope there will be others, as I’d be keen to read more.

This post is the latest stop on a blog tour for The Dinner. Check out the other posts in the tour by clicking on the banner below.

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