CategoryGerman

A mid-December round-up of recent reading

As I’m currently short on blogging time, here are a few notes on some of the books I’ve read lately:

Alex Beer, The Second Rider (2017)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr (2018)

Vienna, 1919: Inspector August Emmerich is tailing a smuggler when he comes across the corpse of a homeless war veteran. Though this appears to be suicide, Emmerich is convinced it’s a murder – even more so when other bodies start to turn up. Alongside the mystery, Beer paints a vivid portrait of a city scarred by war, trying to find its feet again amid the grand remnants of the Habsburg age. There are also some moments of great fun, such as the scene where Emmerich bluffs his way through a hospital lecture while disguised as a doctor. I loved The Second Rider, and I’m really pleased to hear there’s a sequel which will be out in translation next year.

Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)

Way Station is a space opera set in rural Wisconsin. Enoch Wallace fought in the American Civil War, and was then visited by the Galactic Council, who sought to establish a way station on Earth for extra-terrestrial travellers. Wallace’s farmhouse became the way station, and he its immortal custodian; he knows more about the universe than any other human in history, but must live in isolation. I particularly enjoyed Way Station for its sense of how unable the vast universe remains: it brings the alien to Earth, but not down to Earth.

Erhard von Büren, A Long Blue Monday (2013)
Translated from the German by Helen Wallimann (2018)

This is the third novel by Swiss writer von Büren to appear in English. In the present day, Paul Ganter has moved out of his marital home to work on a book. While there, he thinks back to the 1950s and his unrequited love for Claudia, a rich girl he met at college. The young Paul skipped several weeks of college to write a play for Claudia, in the hope of impressing her. Von Büren explores Paul’s life and background in some detail: Paul’s intense period of reflection causes him to question all that he’s done and why people might have reacted as they did. The story of A Long Blue Monday is Paul’s attempt to come to terms with what he has (and has not) become.

Edward Carey, Little (2018)

Little is a novel about the life of Marie Grosholtz, who would become better known as Madame Tussaud. Born in 1761, the young Marie becomes assistant to a waxwork sculptor, spends time as tutor to a French princess, and gets caught up in the foment of revolution. Carey’s prose is bright and colourful, and his illustrations add to a heightened atmosphere. The novel reflects on what it is to create a likeness, to look or represent – and it’s a pleasure to read.

Abi Silver, The Pinocchio Brief (2017)

The Pinocchio Brief is a legal thriller in which barrister Judith Burton and solicitor Constance Lamb team up to defend a boy accused of murdering his teacher. An experimental piece of lie-detection software will be used at the trial, which has implications for Burton – and gives the boy an idea… I found this a very engaging tale, with plenty of tricks up its sleeve. I usually have a more relaxed book on the go that I dip into now and then, and this one was perfect for that.

Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 3

It’s time for the third and final round-up of my contributions to the Twitter discussion of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, organised by Robert Macfarlane. As before, I’ve included some of Macfarlane’s question prompts for context. The first two instalments of this blog series are here and here.

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Chapter VIII ends on Orford Ness, a shingle spit formerly used for military testing. How do you (close-) read what happens in these extraordinary pages?

It reads to me like an inversion of the typical passage in The Rings of Saturn where Sebald will go somewhere and recount a memory. Here we have a photo of the bridge to the site, framed as though a parody of a country house;but instead of recounting a story, Sebald is confronted by the limits of what he can understand about this place. It becomes another example of the recurring theme of humans not being able to comprehend the broader picture of destruction.

The farmer building a model of the Temple of Jerusalem at the start of chapter XI of The Rings of Saturn reminded me (not necessarily appropriately!) of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, when he talked about needing to build in ever greater detail to be accurate.

What are the implications of the closing pages (and sentences) of The Rings of Saturn? What aftermaths will this book leave for you?

The ending caps off some of the book’s main themes – for example, drawing the darkness out of something as seemingly ordinary as silk.

The final image haunts me: Sebald has repeatedly suggested that flying above/gaining an overview of something does not provide understanding. Now a soul departs its body and sees nothing of the world as it rises, because all is draped in black.

One thing that has struck me reading The Rings of Saturn is that I never once thought of it as fiction. I’m used to novels that blur the line (such as Knausgaard, or Cercas’ The Impostor), but for some reason The Rings of Saturn always read to me as non-fiction. I’m still not sure why.

In response to this last tweet, Tom of Wuthering Expectations pointed out to me that parts of Sebald’s book (such as the Chinese Emperor’s train running on a line in Suffolk) are actually made up. I had no notion of this, and of course it settles the “fiction or non-fiction” question. Yet it’s so hard to shake off my abiding impression of the book; I that’s down to the power of Sebald’s style.

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I have to say, I found this Twitter discussion an enjoyable and valuable way of engaging with the book. I don’t know what I would have made of The Rings of Saturn had I been reading it ‘solo’, but I do know that I wouldn’t have got as much out of it as I did.

(‘Blogging as I go’ has also been interesting to do, even just as a series of weekly round-ups. I might experiment with the format a bit more in future.)

Book details

The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse (1998), Vintage Classics, 296 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 2

Here is the second weekly round-up of my contributions to Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter reading group on The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (my first round-up is here). As before, I have made only minor edits to my tweets, and have included some of Macfarlane’s daily questions for context. By the end of this week, I had read the first seven chapters of the book in total.

You can find the discussion on Twitter under the hashtags #TheReadingsofSaturn and #TRoS.

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The German subtitle of The Rings of Saturn, left out of the English translation, is ‘Ein Englische Wallfahrt’; ‘An English Pilgrimage’. What does walking lead to here? What is its ‘work’, what are its natures? What kind of pilgrimage is this?

Walking seems to be a means of moving into and through a place/situation, in order to gradually uncover it (if not necessarily to understand it – see Sebald’s walk into Lowestoft, for example). I think he places walking in opposition to having an overview (flying over something).

Having said that, the book lives in my mind most vividly as a mental journey, rather than as an account of a walk.

Silk & sericulture thread through The Rings of Saturn; text & textile interweave. “That…silk…what does it mean?”

I think most of the references to silk are yet to come in my reading, but so far I associate strongly with images of death – for example, the Celestial King’s body held together only by his silken robes, or the silk fishing nets full of dead herring.

The Rings of Saturn is an overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, male book in terms of narrator, characters & cross-references…What, for you, are the consequences of this skew?

Normally I would say it makes for too partial a view. But I can’t help thinking that, because The Rings of Saturn is such a personal, idiosyncratic account (i.e. not purporting to be a survey of anything in particular) that any range of references would have come across as just as partial.

Still, this is an issue I want to bear in mind for the rest of the book – I might change my mind once I’ve seen the shape of the whole.

Roger Casement & Joseph Conrad: to what ends the long excursus into their lives in Chapter V of The Rings of Saturn? Why the many mediations (we enter their stories through a ‘BBC documentary’)? And why close the chapter with Casement’s signature?

Casement/Conrad feels to me like an interlude in the journey (it’s inspired by a period of rest, not walking) and an underlining of key themes (mortality and atrocity).

Perhaps ends with Casement’s signature to signify a reconstruction of his life, or agreement with him.

What are the functions of listening and hearing in The Rings of Saturn, which is in many ways such a heavily visual book?

(My answer here was in response to a tweet from @__synaesthesia, who commented on how often sounds in Sebald’s book were silenced.)

I have also been struck by the silences in The Rings of Saturn – Sebald and Michael Hamburger talking about the “soundless month of August”, Le Strange’s housekeeper having to eat with him in silence, and so on. Silence in the book often seems tense rather than peaceful.

James Wood, in this essay, argues for Sebald as a surprisingly funny writer, with “an eccentric sense of playfulness”. Do you agree? How far & where do “gravity” & “levity” coexist in The Rings of Saturn?

I think there’s a sense of playfulness in Sebald’s whole structure, building up these idiosyncratic digressions into something that’s ultimately serious. Chapter by chapter, there’s also playfulness in the juxtaposition of different subjects within a passage.

Book details

The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse (1998), Vintage Classics, 296 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 1

Robert Macfarlane is currently hosting a Twitter reading group on W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. I bought a copy last year and hadn’t yet read it, so this seemed an excellent opportunity. I thought I would collect my thoughts together on the blog as I go, to form a kind of reading diary.
For those unfamiliar with the book, it begins as an account of a walk from Lowestoft to Bungay, undertaken by Sebald in August 1992 – but it also includes digressions into memoir, history and science. I’ve added a little to my tweets here for clarification, but have not expanded on them. I have included some of Macfarlane’s daily questions in italics. Finally, if you’re interested in following (or participating in) the Twitter discussion, search for hashtags #TheReadingsofSaturn or #TRoS.

(Apologies for any strange formatting – I can’t seem to save the paragraphs correctly.)

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This is my first time reading The Rings of Saturn (and Sebald in general). Opening impressions are how fluidly it moves from outdoors to claustrophobic interior, through literature, art and biology, all hanging together with the underlying theme of mortality.
And extraordinary images, such as the academic Janine Dakyns’ office full of paper:

The carpet, too, had long since vanished beneath several inches of paper; indeed, the paper had begun climbing from the floor, on which, year after year, it had settled, and was now up the walls as high as the top of the door frame, page upon page of memoranda and notes pinned up in multiple layers, all of them by just one corner. Whenever it was possible there were piles of papers on the books on her shelves as well.

(translation by Michael Hulse)

I found the opening quite disorienting: the sudden leaps from a coastal walk to immobility in hospital to compiling notes, each leap a year apart. I wasn’t expecting it to start that way.
The images are interesting… ostensibly illustrations, yet not. I mean, the first one in the book is of a blank hospital window! Even when they show, say, a street or coastal landscape mentioned in the text, the images feel somewhat disconnected.
Does “place” survive as stable category or surface here?
In what I’ve read so far, there tends to be a relative glimpse of Suffolk landscape, then Sebald will go into a more detailed scientific or historical anecdote. Makes memory/history seem more stable than landscape.
I love this description of the fishermen (on the beach a few miles south of Lowestoft) in chapter III: “They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.”
What other works does the book evoke for you?
I find myself thinking of Enrique Vila-Matas, and a book like Never Any End to Paris which confronts a real place with its counterpart in the imagination.

How does Sebald’s style cast its strange spell? How does it work (on you)?

A discursive, measured prose style that at times lulls me into assuming it’s documentary… then it will shift into something that goes beyond facts and imprints itself on the mind.

I’ve just read chapter IV, and that whole passage on naval battles and our inability to comprehend the suffering really struck me.

Where, in this book so drawn to human darkness, does guilt seem to reside?

So far as I’ve read, guilt seems to reside at all levels, depending on where Sebald’s focus lies at a given time. When he’s taking an overview, it’s often systems and ideologies who are guilty, but with individuals who knew what was happening.

Places might be guilty by association – the end of chapter IV could even be said to make outer space complicit in a human atrocity.

The “vanishing point” & “the view from above” are the two commonest perspectives in The Rings of Saturn. What are their implications for reader & narrator? How do we “see” in this book?

“If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realise how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end…”

Generally, an ‘overview’ implies knowledge of a situation, but I think for Sebald it’s the opposite.

Book details

The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse (1998), Vintage Classics, 296 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

The Last Summer – Ricarda Huch: a snapshot review

This is the first title in Peirene Press‘s ‘East and West’ series; and, unusually for the publisher, it’s a classic – first published in 1910. Ricarda Huch was a pioneering German writer and intellectual, one of the first women to obtain a doctorate from the University of Zurich.

The Last Summer is an epistolary novel set in the early 20th century. Having closed the university due to student unrest, the Governor of St Petersburg receives a death threat. His wife hires him a bodyguard, Lyu. But Lyu is in on a plot to assassinate the Governor.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Jamie Bulloch’s translation creates a real sense of urgency underneath an apparently placid surface. The letters of Lyu and the Governor’s family reveal a complex web of emotion and relationships. But they also bring into question how much one can really know another person. Ultimately, Huch’s characters become trapped by the form of the novel itself. 

This review is adapted from an earlier Twitter thread. 

Book details 

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch (1910), tr. Jamie Bulloch (2017), Peirene Press, 120 pages, paperback (review copy) 

My favourite books read in 2016

This time last year, I wrote that I wanted to understand more deeply why I respond to some books as I do. I think I’m on the way there, and certainly when I look at the books that have stood out most to me in the reading year, I can see a continuity. They belong together in ways that reflect what, how and why I read.

So, here’s the selection: these are the books that I count as my strongest reading experiences of 2016, roughly in ascending order. The links will take you to my reviews.

12. Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, 2015

A novel that feels like a statement of how fiction should relate to the wider world in the 21st century. Nocilla Dream is an assemblage of adapted quotations and character vignettes, with recurring images and locations… but it won’t fit together into a stable whole, however much you try. Like the globalised world it depicts, Fernández Mallo’s novel has no centre; reading it was an experience  of glimpsing a deeper meaning through the haze, only for that to recede shortly after.

11. The Queue (2013) by Basma Abdel Aziz
Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. 2016

In a Middle Eastern city, the flow of life has been disrupted by a bureaucracy that forces people to queue for days on end in order to obtain authorisation for the smallest things. This is a novel that works through quietness and precision: its measured tone persuades one to accept the reality of this situation; then, the chilling implications unfold. A similar process occurs with the city’s inhabitants, as all the queueing changes the way they think and behave, until there’s no easy way for them to imagine something else.

10. Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, 2011

This was a book that seemed superficially light: a fictionalised account of the author’s time in Paris in the 1970s, where he sought to live like Hemingway. But as I carried on reading, the novel circled around issues of reality and imagination – how the place in the mind can endure longer and loom larger than the real one. That led me to confront the basic questions of what it is to read fiction: ultimately, nothing in Vila-Matas’ book is solid, but the reading of it persists regardless.

9. Tainaron: Mail from Another City (1985) by Leena Krohn
Translated from the Finnish by Hildi Hawkins, 2004

I didn’t get around to reviewing this one, and I really must. Like The Queue, Tainaron is precisely balanced on a knife-edge between reality and unreality. It’s told a series of letters sent home from someone living in a city of giant insects – a city that might be more a state of mind than an actual place. For me, this is on a par with Viriconium in terms of dismantling the certainties of story, and the disorientation that follows in the reading.

8. The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz
Translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West, 2015

The Weight of Things is the short opening slice of a much larger, untranslated (and possibly untranslatable) fictional project – and the shadow of two world wars looms over its apparently small tale of a couple visiting the husband’s ex-wife in her asylum. Broken chronology destroys the sense that there can be progression beyond the fictional present; and there’s one moment cuts though the reading as much as in any book I’ve experienced. At the time, I described reading Fritz’s book as like waking from a beautiful nightmare, and I still feel the same.

7. Tram 83 (2014) by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated from the French by Roland Glasser, 2015

Here’s a book where it really is all about the language: the rhythm, the pulse, the interplay of voices. Lucien travels to the newly seceded ‘City-State’, intending to concentrate on his writing – but he gets caught up in other matters. The city has its own soundtrack of voices, bewildering and exhilarating to Lucien and the reader alike. The protagonist tries to bring his own language to the city, but all he can do is merge into its web; likewise, the best way I found to read Tram 83 was to lose myself in its words.

6. Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys

This is the second novel on my list set amid the streets of Paris, but shows writing transformed by place in a different way. The Paris of Rhys’s protagonist is so quietly anonymous that the present day fades in comparison to the memories that continue to haunt her. This was my first time reading Rhys; I found her novel so piercing that I must read more.

5. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

I love this book for the way that Manyika slides between viewpoints to explore the gap between an individual’s self-perception and the person by others. Retired literature professor Morayo breaks her hip and has to move temporarily into a nursing home – and suddenly she is a vulnerable old woman to people who don’t know her. Reading the novel, and being able to see all sides, allows the gap to be bridged. That Morayo is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve encountered all year is a welcome bonus.

4. Martin John (2015) by Anakana Schofield

Schofield’s novel takes readers inside the mind of a flasher – not so much in a way that tries to explain him as one that challenges the reader to engage with his character. While most novels are organised to create meaning for the reader, Martin John is arranged to create meaning for its protagonist, constructed around his loops and preoccupations. This is what makes it such a strong, disorienting experience: there is no map of this novel’s singular landscape.

3. Mend the Living (2014) by Maylis de Kerangal
Translated from the French by Jessica Moore, 2016

At one level, Mend the Living is a novel about a heart transplant. At another level, it’s an all-pervading cloud of language which explores the different meanings of this event, and the human body itself, as life effectively passes from one individual to another. At times, reading de Kernagal’s book was like having several extra senses with which to perceive what was being narrated.

2. Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf

2016 was when I finally introduced myself to Woolf’s work, and not before time. I read five of her books, and liked some more than others; but the first one I read is still the most vivid. Mrs Dalloway showed me a different way to read, as I found a novel in which events take place at the level of thought and consciousness, as much as in geographical space. There’s such power in being brought so close to the characters’ viewpoints and flowing between them. And the ending, which brings the horror of war crashing directly into Clarissa Dalloway’s polite society, is one of my year’s finest reading moments.

1. Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, 2016

I thought about it for a long time, but there was no escaping the conclusion that a Han Kang book would top my list for the second year in a row. Like The Vegetarian, Human Acts is a novel of the body, but this time as the level at which to process conflict (or try to do so). Though there’s violence and bloodshed on a large scale in Han’s depiction of the Gwagju Uprising, it is the small human movements that I found most vivid. That contrast helped to create the strongest experience ofall the books I read this year.

I’d like to write another post that explores what this list could tell me about how and why I read. For now, though, I’ll leave you with my previous lists of favourites: 201520142013; 201220112010; and 2009.

 

Some reviews elsewhere

I haven’t been posting links to my external reviews lately, so here’s a round-up of the most recent four: all books that are worth your time.

winterlingsThe Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade (tr. Samuel Rutter). Twenty-five years after being evacuated to England, two sisters return to the Galician parish of their childhood. The place is otherworldly to them, but they also have a glamour of their own – and so mystery encroaches on the reader from all sides. Reviewed for European Literature Network.

 

beast

Beast by Paul Kingsnorth. Second part of the thematic trilogy that began with The Wake. This volume is set in the present day, and focuses on an Englishman in search of his place in the landscape. A strange creature haunts the corner of his eye, and his language grows more primal as he heads further into hallucination. Reviewed for Shiny New Books.

 

brussoloThe Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome by Serge Brussolo (tr. Edward Gauvin). A tantalising slice of weirdness set in a reality where art is retrieved from the depths of dreams. One man believes that the dream realm has its own objective existence – and he’ll risk his very self to prove it. Reviewed for Strange Horizons.

 

tobacconist

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (tr. Charlotte Collins). A new novel in English from the author of A Whole Life. The tale of a young man who becomes a tobacconist’s apprentice in 1930s Vienna and strikes up a friendship with Sigmund Freud. Love begins to stir, just as the shadow of the Nazis grows. Reviewed for European Literature Network.

‘A Game of Chess’ by Stefan Zweig

zweigchessNovember is German Literature Month and, though I haven’t had time to participate fully this year, I have been able to introduce myself to another classic author. I’ve been reading a new collection of four of Stefan Zweig’s stories and novellas, freshly translated by Peter James Bowman and published by Alma Classics.

The title novella, 1941’s ‘A Game of Chess’ (aka ‘The Royal Game’ or ‘Chess Story’) was, I understand, Zweig’s last fiction published in his lifetime. Its narrator is about to leave New York on a steamship when he learns that one of his fellow passengers is the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic. Fascinated by theCzentovic’s monomaniacal pursuit of chess, the narrator gathers together a small group of passengers to challenge him to a game – which, unsurprisingly, they lose. But, in a second game, the advice of one Dr B., an Austrian, guides the group to a draw. Next day, Dr B. tells his story and reveals the source of his extraordinary insight into chess.

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The general impression I get of Zweig;s fiction from the stories I’ve read is that his narrator will typically be an impartial observer, in whom another character will confide, breaking open the façade of normality to uncover darkness beneath.  In ‘A Game of Chess’, Dr B. explains that he was a solicitor who had been arrested by the Nazi regime. He was kept in a hotel room in complete isolation; Zweig evokes Dr B.’s mental state at that time vividly:

After each session with the Gestapo my own mind took over the same merciless torment of questioning, probing and harassment – perhaps even more cruelly, for while in the first case the grilling at least ended after an hour, in the second the malicious torture of solitude perpetuated it indefinitely. And all the while there was nothing around me but the table, the wardrobe, the bed, the wallpaper, the window; no distractions, no book, no newspaper, no new face, no pencil for noting things down, no matchstick to play with, just nothing, nothing, nothing.

Eventually Dr B. found a book, though it turned out to be a chess manual. The only way he found to cope with his situation was intense study, rehearsing the games mentally over and over again. So Dr B. becomes a mirror of Mirko Czentovic: where the chess champion is presented as someone whose single-minded focus had led him to fame and fortune,  Dr B.’s chess knowledge has allowed him simply to be there in the present, and represents the lasting scars of the past. A seemingly ordinary game has opened up the hidden worlds within a life.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig, tr. Peter James Bowman (2016), Alma Classics paperback.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler: MBIP 2016

 

SeethalerMy first stop on this Man Booker International Prize journey is Austria, and a book that passed me by completely prior to its longlisting. The fulcrum of Robert Seethaler’s short (150 pages) novel is Andreas Egger, who is brought to his uncle’s farm as a boy in 1902. Egger remains in the same mountain village all his life, apart from two months serving on the front in Russia and the subsequent eight years as a prisoner in the gulag. A broken leg in childhood leaves Egger with a permanent limp, but he is otherwise strong and agile. The mountains are in his bones:

Sometimes, on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.

Everything in A Whole Life returns to the landscape: the encroachment of modernity is symbolised by the cable car being built in the valley, which will bring electricity and more besides. The Second World War happens largely at a distance: for Egger it’s mostly a matter of boring holes in rock, cutting wood, marking time in the camp. Towards the end of his life, thinking to broaden his horizons, Egger takes the bus to its last stop; when he gets there, he has no idea where to go – he may have spent his life in the same place, but that place is his life to a great extent.

In the latest edition of the Peirene Press newspaper, the writer Cynan Jones has an article in praise of short novels:

There’s no room for digression. No room for passenger writing. Every word is doing a job. So pay attention. A short novel is an event, not a trip.

I was reminded of this very much when reading A Whole Life: since the book’s canvas is so large in comparison to the page-count, the account of Egger’s life seems distilled to its essence. The quiet precision of Charlotte Collins’ translation underlines how deeply Egger is connected to his specific surroundings.

I was also put in mind of Angharad Price’s superb The Life of Rebecca Jones (2002; translated by Lloyd Jones, 2010), another short novel about a character who lives for much of the 20th century in the same place. The experiences of their protagonists are rather different, but both novels show lives lived fully despite being bounded geographically. The title of Seethaler’s book is apposite in more ways than one: yes, it chronicles Andreas Egger’s ‘whole’ life from beginning to end; but that life is also whole because it’s lived in the round, for good and ill.

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Is this book a shortlist contender?

I’m not sure yet. To my mind, A Whole Life is a solid nominee; but it feels more like a book that may round out my personal shortlist, rather than a shoo-in. Time will tell…

Elsewhere

Nobody else on the shadow panel has reviewed A Whole Life as yet, but you can find more reviews at Lizzy’s Literary Life, Vishy’s Blog, and A Life in Books.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Whole Life (2014) by Robert Seethaler, tr. Charlotte Collins (2015), Picador paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

Reflections: fiction and manipulation

MountainsEchoedI recently read Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed for my book group. It’s the kind of realism that is not generally to my taste, but I found it okay for the most part. That was until the point where two characters were about to be reunited, when I had a distinct sense of being made to care about these characters – and I did not like that sense at all. “Unpleasantly manipulative book,” I thought.

But this reaction raises some questions for me. Couldn’t it be argued that all fiction is ‘manipulative’, in that fiction manipulates language, and language affects the reader? Well, maybe, but that makes it sound as though fiction is just a trick, and I don’t believe that – I have been affected deeply, viscerally by some fiction; it would be denying the reality of those experiences to treat them as products of trickery. If I’m going to conclude that, however, perhaps I need a more nuanced picture of what was happening when I read Hosseini.

WeightofThings

It might be useful to compare my experience of reading And the Mountains Echoed with that of reading The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz. Now, there was a book I found harrowing, an effect created at least in part by the way the novel withheld information and rearranged its chronology. Is Fritz’s approach really so different from Hosseini’s? If not, why did one book induce the feeling of being manipulated when the other did not?

The answer, I think, lies in the language and style that the authors use. In The Weight of Things, the style, structure and shape become part of what the book is about – they mean something in their own right. So, for example, the deceptive lightness of tone can be seen to reflect the way that the characters do not or cannot acknowledge the existential weight bearing down from the events of their history. As a result, Fritz’s novel could not be written another way, because then it would mean something different.

To my mind, Hosseini’s book isn’t like this. It’s written what feels like a default literary style: effective and efficient in its way, but familiar from so many other books – and, crucially, not implicated in the novel’s project. It would be possible to change the words and style of And the Mountains Echoed without really changing its meaning. For me, this makes the language a kind of veneer over the novel, and that’s where the sense of being manipulated arises.

In contrast, The Weight of Things acknowledges that its language is the novel, so it brings me as reader closer to the text – and my response to it seems to emerge spontaneously from the reading. This is one reason why fiction that doesn’t take its language and shape for granted is the fiction that makes me feel most alive.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Book details (Foyles affiliate/publisher links)

And the Mountains Echoed (2013) by Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury paperback

The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz, tr. Adrian Nathan West (2015), Dorothy, a publishing project paperback

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