Now we come to the top 10 books in my list of memorable reading moments. I wanted to say a bit more with these, so I’ve split the ten in half. The top 5 will be up next Sunday, but for now, please enjoy numbers 10 through to 6. These are all books I have never forgotten, and doubt I ever will.Continue reading
A selection of titles from the International Booker Prize longlist…
Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season (2017)
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (2020)
Hurricane Season is an appropriate title for a novel that roars into the unsuspecting reader’s mind, with its long and winding sentences, and its refusal to flinch from the brutalities of its world.
Set in a Mexican village, Melchor’s book begins with the murder of a woman known as “the Witch”, whose house is rumoured to hide a stash of treasure. Subsequent chapters unpeel the events that led to the killing, and show the dark realities of life in this community.
It’s a powerful translation by Sophie Hughes, and a novel that’s not soon forgotten.
Daniel Kehlmann, Tyll (2017)
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin (2020)
Tyll Ulenspiegel, the main character of this novel, is based on a trickster figure from medieval German folklore. Kehlmann brings him forward in time to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). Tyll escapes the childhood village where his father is accused of witchcraft, and as an adult becomes a travelling entertainer and court jester.
Kehlmann’s novel is at its best when Tyll is at centre-stage, the prankster who breaks through the superstitions and mores of his society. When he isn’t front and centre… well, it probably helps to know about the historical background. Overall, though, Tyll is engaging and enjoyable.
Shokoofeh Azar, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree (2017)
Translated from the Persian by an anonymous translator
Following the 1979 Revolution, Bahar’s family were forced to flee Tehran for the small village of Razan, seeking to maintain their intellectual freedom, and at least some sort of continuity in life.
But the authorities catch up with them eventually. As the novel begins in 1988, Bahar’s mother has climbed a greengage tree and apparently attained enlightenment. At the same time, Bahar’s brother has been executed elsewhere. Brightness and brutality are intermingled in the text.
Azar’s novel is full of stories within stories, and the supernatural is never far away (even Bahar, our narrator, is a ghost). It’s compelling to read, delightful and powerful in equal measure.
Claudio Morandini, Snow, Dog, Foot (2015)
Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)
Peirene’s series theme for 2019-20 is ‘Closed Universe’, and this first title takes us into the troubled mind of one old man living in the Alps.
Adelmo Farandola (always referred to by his full name) spends the winter up in the mountains away from people, and the summer even further up in the mountains. When we meet him, he goes down to the village to stock up on supplies for the winter. The shopkeeper is surprised to see him because (she says) he visited only last week. Adelmo has no memory of that.
For most of Morandini’s novel, it’s just Adelmo, his dog, and the young ranger who goes by from time to time. Adelmo is snowed in for months, then has to decide what to do when he sees a foot poking out of the snow.
What makes Snow, Dog, Foot so compelling is the ambiguity running through it. Reality is fluid for Adelmo, so there’s no fanfare when (for example) the dog starts talking to him, because that’s just the way things are. Adelmo has complete trust in his senses, which means we have constant mistrust. The book grows ever more poignant as the layers of perception peel away and we understand what’s happening.
Emmanuelle Pagano, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue (2012)
Translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis (2019)
Part of Peirene’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series, this is a collection of linked stories set in rural France. These are vivid tales of character: the hitchhiker who stands in drivers’ blind spots. The old man near the holiday rental who’ll tell stories of the local area to anyone who will listen. The father remembering his daughter’s childhood through an old jigsaw puzzle.
Characters and images recur, not least the roads that link up places but also lead away from them. The repeating references to individuals and events serve to remind how small a community can be. But the details of the stories reveal how even familiar faces may be unknown or forgotten.
Birgit Vanderbeke, You Would Have Missed Me (2016)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2019)
Another title from the ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Vanderbeke draws on her own childhood for this tale of an East German refugee trying to settle into West German society in the 1960s.
I particularly like the childlike tone of the narration: the hurried gabble of this happened and then that and this and you know what else, as though the narrator wants to tell us everything.
The end of the year has come around again, so it’s time to look back. Going through my list of books read this year has brought back some happy memories, so here are my twelve favourites. As ever, the list is in rough descending order of enjoyment, but they’re all warmly recommended.
12. The Perseverance (2019) by Raymond Antrobus
I’ve been dipping my toes into the world of poetry this year. Antrobus’ highly personal collection – which explores themes of language, communication and family relationships – stood out to me. A worthy winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award.
11. Tamarisk Row (1974) by Gerald Murnane
I’ve never read a novel that evokes childhood imagination quite like this. A boy in 1940s Australia imagines hidden worlds in the abstract patterns of everyday reality (such as the play of light through glass). The raw, deep feelings of growing up are made vertiginous in Murnane’s prose.
10. Notes to Self (2018) by Emilie Pine
A collection of personal essays in which the act of writing seems at least as important to the writer as what she’s writing about. Pine is unflinching as she explores issues of the (her) family, body and self. The sense is that she’s taking the stuff of her life apart and building it anew.
9. The Years (2008) by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (2017)
An account of the mid-to-late 20th century whose writing stopped me in my tracks. The narrator’s personal history plays out against and within the broader passage of time. I was particularly struck by the way the text changes shape to reflect different ways of knowing and remembering – stories giving way to fragments of information.
8. The Drover’s Wives (2019) by Ryan O’Neill
Possibly the book that was the most pure fun to read this year. The Drover’s Wives consists of a classic Australian short story retold in 101 different ways, from ‘Hemingwayesque’ to ‘A 1980s Computer Game’ and even a chart of paint swatches. O’Neill brings out different sides to the original story, and though there’s a lot to smile about, there are some poignant moments too.
7. The Cheffe (2016) by Marie NDiaye
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump (2019)
The very last book I read before compiling this list, but one that made a considerable impression. It’s the tale of an elusive culinary genius through the eyes of a former employee who thinks he has insight into her that may be the product of obsession. The ‘double remove’ between us and the Cheffe makes the novel so tantalising.
6. Strike Your Heart (2017) by Amélie Nothomb
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson (2018)
Nothomb takes my ‘should have read this author sooner’ slot for the year. This novel is a short, sharp, 360-degree view of its protagonist’s female relationships, from her jealous mother to the assistant professor who may not be as much of a friend as she appears.
5. Transfer Window (2017) by Maria Gerhardt
Translated from the Danish by Lindy Falk van Rooyen (2019)
Talking of short and sharp… This is the piercing portrait of a terminally ill young woman who has moved to a wealthy suburb of Copenhagen, recently turned into a hospice. Transfer Window is harrowing in its sense of life cut short. Inside the hospice, the protagonist’s old life slips away: for everyone outside, life goes on.
4. The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) by Irmgard Keun
Translated from the German by Kathie von Ankum (2002)
Doris is a secretary with dreams of being a star; she leaves her job and travels to Berlin, where she finds that life’s pendulum may swing in a different direction without warning. Doris’s voice is compelling as the world shifts around her. There are moments of joy, but also signs of the darkness that was to come – signs that seem all the more pronounced from this historical distance.
3. Nocilla Lab (2009) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead (2019)
The final part of Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy, and my personal favourite. We follow a version (or versions) of the author on a trip to Sardinia, through four sections written in different styles. The question becomes, can we trust the narrator to be the same individual throughout? The sense of a single coherent ‘I’ grows ever more fragile.
2. Follow Me to Ground (2018) by Sue Rainsford
A novel of genuine strangeness that gains power from refusing to explain itself. Ada and her father heal people, but exactly what they do (or even what they are) is a mystery to us. When Ada falls in love with one of her “Cures”, this threatens to upend her entire existence… and that core of mystery gnaws away all the while.
1. Berg (1964) by Ann Quin
I first heard about this novel ten years before reading it, and eventually got to it at just the right time. I was expecting the prose to require some concentration, but I wasn’t expecting the book to be so funny. Quin’s hapless protagonist goes to the seaside intending to kill his father in revenge, but finds he can’t actually go through with it. Events descend into outright farce… and I found a new book to treasure.
So, that was my 2019. How was your reading year?
If you’d like to catch up on previous yearly round-up, they’re here: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or here.
Irmgard Keun, The Artificial Silk Girl (1932)
Translated from the German by Kathie von Ankum (2002)
And I think it will be a good thing if I write everything down, because I’m an unusual person. I don’t mean a diary – that’s ridiculous for a trendy girl like me. But I want to write it like a movie, because my life is like that and it’s going to become even more so. And I look like Colleen Moore, if she had a perm and her nose were a little more fashionable, like pointing up. And when I read it later on, everything will be like at the movies – I’m looking at myself in pictures.
Doris’s voice comes at us in this beguiling tumble of sentences (a wonderful translation by Kathie von Ankum), as though she’s creating her thoughts and life as she goes. In a sense, she is: she’s a secretary in a “mid-size town” in Germany of 1931, who dreams of being a star and drifts from lover to lover as the tides of circumstance carry her. She’d like love, but equally she is pragmatic about the whole thing. Doris leaves her job when her boss gets the wrong idea about her (she asks him: “How can a highly educated man like yourself be so dumb to think that a pretty young girl like myself would be crazy about him?”). She joins the theatre, doing whatever she can to get ahead – such as pretending that she’s in a relationship with the director, so as to increase her importance in the eyes of others.
Presently, Doris decides it’s time to leave for Berlin. The big city is dazzling – there’s a wonderful sequence in which Doris takes a blind neighbour on a tour, describing what she sees, and the sense of delight and wonder for both of them is palpable. But the extremes of high and low are greater in Berlin than the mid-size town, and life’s pendulum can swing without warning. For example, there is one scene in which Doris has met a wealthy businessman and is living a life of luxury in his apartment… Then, in the very next scene, his wife has returned from a trip, the man himself has been arrested, and Doris has had to sell below cost the few things she could salvage, just to go back to square one.
The Artificial Silk Girl was Irmgard Keun’s second novel, published the year before her books were banned by the Nazis (in 1936, she would go into exile). There are glimpses in the novel (mostly unnoticed by Doris) of changing social attitudes that prefigure what was to come. The Artificial Silk Girl is the story of a young woman trying to find a foothold in a world that constantly shifts around her; reading in the present day, we know only too well how fragile that world would be.
My post today is the last stop on a blog tour for The Storyteller, the debut novel by Lebanese-German author Pierre Jarawan (translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl, published earlier this month by World Editions). This is a big yarn of a novel, exploring family secrets.
In 1992, young Samir lives with his family in Germany. He’s never been to Lebanon, but is fascinated by his father’s accounts of the place:
As a boy, I felt an insatiable longing to see Lebanon. It was like the enormous curiosity inspired by a legendary beauty no one has ever seen. The passion and fervour in the way Father spoke about his native land spread to me like a fever. The Lebanon I grew up with was an idea. The idea of the most beautiful country in the world, its rocky coastline dotted with ancient and mysterious cities whose colourful harbours opened out to the sea.
One day, Samir’s father disappears, and family life falls apart. Years later, Samir decides that the time is right to travel to Lebanon and try to find out what happened to his father. He discovers a life and history that were unknown to him – and that the fantastical tales his father would tell him as a child had an unexpected basis in reality.
The Storyteller examines Lebanese history on the smaller canvas of a family’s story, and considers how stories themselves may distort reality. It’s expansive and engaging stuff.
The Storyteller (2016) by Pierre Jarawan, tr. Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl (2019), World Editions, 468 pages, paperback.
Marion Poschmann, The Pine Islands (2017)
Translated from the German by Jen Calleja (2019)
After dreaming that his wife has cheated on him, Gilbert Silvester leaves Germany for Japan, for no reason he can articulate. Inspired by the travelogues of Bashō, Gilbert decides to go to the pine-covered islands of Matsushima in the north. He takes under his wing a young man named Yosa Tamagotchi, whom he stops from throwing himself under a train. We’ll find you a better spot, Gilbert tells him.
At first – with Gilbert’s tenuous pretext for fleeing home, the hipsterish nature of his job (a lecturer on beards in film), and his unshakeable confidence in his own rightness – it seemed clear to me that The Pine Islands would be spoofing the stereotypical, self-absorbed white Western male who goes off to distant lands in order to ‘find himself’. There are some nicely amusing moments, such as when Gilbert tries composing a haiku:
Hi from Tokyo –
Cherry trees no longer bloom,
only bare concrete.
Gilbert read his poem through a few times and concluded that he had reached the heart of the matter. The rules of the haiku, which he had learnt from the appendix of the Bashō book, had been perfectly realised within these lines: five, then seven, then once more five syllables, an allusion to the season, a sensuous impression, universal and seemingly impersonal, in which a sensitive reader would have nevertheless been able to decipher profound emotion.
Well, if you say so, Gilbert.
As Poschmann’s novel progresses, Gilbert’s journey of self-discovery gains more weight. There are lovely passages of nature writing in the latter stages (it’s a carefully controlled translation by Jen Calleja). The thing is that, when the book takes Gilbert more seriously, it ends up undermining the tone of critique that came before, and Japan itself feels more like a backdrop than a place. The result is a frustratingly uneven novel.
The Pine Islands (2017) by Marion Poschmann, tr. Jen Calleja (2019), Serpent’s Tail, 184 pages, hardback.
Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.
Today’s post is the latest stop on a blog tour for The Capital by Austrian writer Robert Menasse (translated by Jamie Bulloch), which MacLehose Press are publishing on 21 February. The Capital is a novel of the EU, a panorama of political life in Brussels with a streak of satire. It begins with an escaped pig at large in the city, witnessed by various characters. The pig reappears throughout the novel, tying its different strands together and serving as a constant symbol of the absurd.
The central plot strand of The Capital concerns the upcoming (in the novel) fiftieth anniversary of the European Commission. Fenia Xenopoulou of the Directorate-General for Culture is charge of organising a celebration, though she (along with most others involved) is more interested in it as a means of career advancement. Her assistant has the idea to put Auschwitz at the heart of the event, but other parts of the Commission are not so keen. The wheels gradually start to come off.
I particularly like the way that The Capital balances humour and seriousness. For example, we gain a more poignant perspective from the character of David de Vriend, an Auschwitz survivor:
He wanted to draw up a list, write down the names of all those who had survived alongside him and who he knew to still be alive; he hadn’t received notification of their deaths, at least. Why? He had memories, they thrust themselves forwards. Names would flash up in his mind, he saw faces, heard voices, peered into dark eyes, saw gestures and movements, and he felt the hunger, this chaff cutter of life that devours the body fat, then pulps the muscles and then the soul, which you first discover – if at all – when the hunger becomes a metaphor: the hunger for life.
Alongside the stories of these characters, The Capital includes a trade protest, a murder investigation, and more besides. It all adds up to a multifaceted portrait of a city and an institution.
The Capital (2017) by Robert Menasse, tr. Jamie Bulloch (2019), MacLehose Press, 417 pages, hardback (source: review copy provided by publisher).
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.