CategoryNorwegian

My favourite books read in 2018

By accident rather than design, I read less in 2018 than I had in quite some time. However, unlike last year, it feels right to do my usual list of twelve favourites. One thing that really stands out to me is what a good year it’s been for short story collections – I have four on my list, more than ever before. 2018 was also the year when I started reviewing for Splice, and you’ll see that reflected in my list, too.

As always, the ranking is not meant to be taken too seriously – I like to have a countdown, but really I’d recommend them all. I haven’t differentiated between old and new books, though as it turns out, most are from this year. The links will take you to my original review of each book.

You can also read my previous favourites posts from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year. It’ll be the tenth anniversary of this blog, so I have some plans for looking back as well as forward.

12. And the Wind Sees All (2011) by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Andrew Cauthery and Björg Árnadóttir (2018)

I read this book only a few days ago and it made such an impression that it went straight on to my end-of-year list. Part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series, And the Wind Sees All is set in an Icelandic fishing village, during a couple of minutes during which Kata, the village choir’s conductor, cycles down the main street. Like the wind, the novel flows in and out of the lives of the villagers Kata cycles past, revealing secrets, losses, fears and joys. The writing is gorgeous.

11. Fish Soup (2012-6) by Margarita García Robayo
Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe (2018)

The English-language debut of Colombian writer García Robayo, Fish Soup collects together two novellas and seven short stories. Among others, we meet a young woman so desperate to escape her current life that she can’t see what it’s doing to herself and others; a businessman forced to confront the emptiness in his life; and a student being taught one thing at school while experiencing something quite different in her life outside the classroom. All is told in a wonderfully sardonic voice.

10. Three Dreams in the Key of G (2018) by Marc Nash

This is a novel of language, motherhood, and biology, told in the voices of a mother in peace-agreement Ulster; the elderly founder of a women’s refuge in Florida; and the human genome itself. Perhaps more than any other book I read this year, the shape of Three Dreams is a key part of what it means: it’s structured in a way that reflects DNA, and the full picture of the novel emerges from the interaction of its different strands.

9. Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (2018)

This was a book that had me from the title. A composite of corpses comes to life in US-occupied Baghdad. It starts to avenge the victims who make up its component parts, then finds those disintegrating, so it has to keep on killing to survive… and becomes a walking metaphor for self-perpetuating violence. Saadawi’s novel is powerful, horrific, and drily amusing where it needs to be.

8. The Last Day (2004) by Jaroslavas Melnikas
Translated from the Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute (2018)

A collection of stories where the extraordinary intrudes on the everyday – such as a cinema showing the never-ending film of someone’s life, or a mysterious treasure trail leading the narrator to an unknown end point. Melnikas’ stories become richer by reflecting on what this strangeness means for the characters, an approach that was right up my street.

7. The White Book (2016) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2017)

Another deeply felt book from a favourite contemporary writer. The White Book is structured as a series of vignettes on white things, from snow to swaddling bands, all haunted by the spectre of a sister who died before the narrator was born. Reading Han always feels more intimate than with most other writers; her prose cuts like glass, bypassing conscious thought and going straight to the place where reading blurs into living.

6. T Singer (1999) by Dag Solstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally (2018)

My first experience of Solstad’s work, and it’s like reading on a tightrope. A synopsis would make it seem that nothing much is going on, as Solstad’s protagonist seeks anonymity by becoming a librarian in a small town. But the busyness of Singer’s inner life creates a contrast with his essential loneliness, an abyss for the reader to stare into.

5. The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark

Every time I read Muriel Spark, I’m reminded of why I want to read more. Set in a post-war London boarding house for young women, this is a tale of lost (and sometimes found) opportunity and missed communication. I love the way that Spark twists her characters’ (and reader’s) sense of time and space, the undercurrent of dark wit… No doubt there’s even more to see on a re-read.

4. The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood

Everything that Lucy Wood writes ends up in my list of favourites. I love the way that she evokes a sense of mystery lying beneath the interaction of life and place. The stories in The Sing of the Shore are set in off-season Cornwall, a place where children take over other people’s unoccupied second homes, the sand advances and recedes, and both people and things are transient.

3. The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan (1993)

I loved this Norwegian classic about a girl trying to come to terms with her friend’s disappearance. Vesaas’ novel is full of the raw sense of selves and friendships being formed, and examines what it takes to find one’s place in a community or landscape. The prose is beautiful, crystalline and jagged, like the frozen waterfall that gives The Ice Palace its title.

2. Mothers (2018) by Chris Power

Stories of family and relationships, travel and searching – each illuminating and resonating with the others. Three stories following the same character’s journey through life form the backbone of Power’s collection. In between, there’s a frustrated stand-up comedian, a couple walking in Exmoor who find their relationship tougher terrain, a chess-like game of flirtation in Paris, and more. I can’t wait to see what Power writes next.

1. Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2018)

A novel about a woman who has worked in a convenience store for 18 years, trying to find her own sort of normality. The protagonist’s sense of self is challenged, and the reader is also challenged to empathise with her. Convenience Store Woman is a vivid character study that builds to the most powerful ending I’ve read all year. I won’t forget this book for a long, long time.

T Singer – Dag Solstad

The Norwegian author Dag Solstad has been on my List of Writers to Read Eventually for quite some time. My main reason for reading this particular book right now is wanting to get a head start on some potential contenders for next year’s Man Booker International Prize (I have others lined up to read, too). Each of Solstad’s three previous novels translated into English were listed for the old IFFP, so why shouldn’t this do the same with the MBIP? (Maybe because he’ll have two eligible titles next year – the other is Armand V – but I’ll gloss over that…)

Anyway, that’s the pretext: what about the novel?

Solstad’s protagonist is outwardly unremarkable, not even receiving a full name (and the ‘T’ appears only in the book’s title). Singer feels that “his place was to be found in total anonymity”; indeed that’s where he “thrives”. He also has a detailed inner life: at the start of the novel, we are plunged into a sequence showing how Singer dwells on some of his misunderstandings, such as mistaking one acquaintance for another:

What was it he said to K, whom he thought was B? Perhaps something about how dark the room was. Perhaps something about the film (or the jazz concert) they were about to see (or hear). Perhaps some slightly joking remark about the weather, the chairs, the table, the candlelight. Perhaps a comment about a third mutual acquaintance, Y, whom K also knows, spoken in a somewhat different tone than he would have used if talking to K about Y.

(translation by Tiina Nunnally)

So it goes on, with various what-ifs around B, K and Y. I got a bit lost in the middle of this early passage, yet it was exhilarating to read. The level of detail draws everything out to the edge of absurdity, where something that might seem sensible to a character could easily be mistaken for something ridiculous (or vice versa).

The novel continues in this discursive vein as it chronicles Singer’s move to the small town of Notodden to become a librarian, which he thinks will be a good profession for attaining the anonymity he seeks. In due course, Singer falls in love with and marries a ceramicist named Merete Særthe, moving in with her and her daughter Isabella. Even this does not disrupt Singer’s sense of self, because the role of the family man is what completes his anonymity.

To begin with, Singer is quite comfortable with his tendency to keep the world at a distance; but the second half of the novel turns this on its head. As Isabella grows up, Singer finds her as distant from him as he always preferred to be from others:

But why did she behave with such intent seriousness within this childhood she’d been given, which many would say was a gift? As if the whole time she were mimicking something that she realised should have brought her delight? Singer didn’t know, but now and then he would be seized by anxiety when he saw her involved in such withdrawn activity.

I’ve sometimes seen Steve Mitchelmore refer to ‘lightness’ in fiction, meaning “the quality of great seriousness without it being overt,” (to quote a tweet of his). This kept coming to mind when I was reading T Singer, because it felt as though Solstad’s prose was skipping “like a stone across deceptively calm waters” (quoting a tweet of my own, here). For example, it hops from work to love to family with deft footwork, yet beneath that is the essential loneliness of Singer’s desire to push the world away: something that he won’t confront, in the same way that Solstad’s writing doesn’t face it directly. Then, when Singer’s distancing turns around to bite him, the same narrative technique represents the gulf between him and Isabella. Nunnally’s translation is superb in capturing the vertiginous quality of Solstad’s prose. I hope that T Singer will receive a nod in the MBIP next year – certainly it deserves to.

Read other reviews of T Singer at 1streading’s Blog; The Modern Novel; and The Complete Review.

Book details

T Singer (1999) by Dag Solstad, tr. Tiina Nunnally (2018), Harvill Secker, 263 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas

Today, I’ve got a Norwegian classic for you. Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) came from the village of Vinje, a village in the southern Norwegian province of Telemark. He was a prolific writer, publishing over 25 novels, including 1963’s The Ice Palace. I’m reviewing the new Penguin Modern Classics edition, which has been published in association with Peter Owen Publishers. Before I start on the novel itself, I must say that I think the cover image is gorgeous. It’s by Hsiao-Ron Cheng, a Taiwanese artist; if you like this picture, there’s more on her Instagram.

Now, back to The Ice Palace. It’s the story of two 11-year-old girls, Siss and Unn. Siss is the leader in her school playground, the one whom all the other children gravitate towards. Unn is a recent arrival from another district, come to stay with her aunt (rumour has it, because she has been orphaned). Unn stands apart from all the others in the playground, but Siss is drawn to her nonetheless. It turns out that Unn would like to spend time with Siss after all, but will only do so if Siss visits her at home after school. Siss accepts the invitation.

The scene where the two girls are sitting in Unn’s bedroom is remarkably powerful. Tension builds and builds, but so much remains elusive. In this passage, for example, Siss and Unn are looking at their reflections in a mirror:

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking-glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know: Gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation.

In that moment, a unique spark of something has ignited between Siss and Unn; the whole sequence is full of the raw sense of two children working out the shape of their new friendship in the moment. As the scene progresses, it appears that Unn would like to disclose a deep secret to Siss, something that she hasn’t felt able to say to anyone else. However, just as Unn begins to do so, Siss feels uncomfortable and asks to leave.

The following morning, Unn (in the only chapter written from her viewpoint) feels that it would be too embarrassing to meet Siss again that day. Instead of going to school, Unn decides to explore the ice palace, a mysterious and beautiful structure which has been formed by a frozen waterfall. It’s there that Unn vanishes.

The rest of the novel revolves primarily around Siss, and her response to a world without Unn. At first, Siss promises to think about Unn – and no one else – for as long as Unn is missing. However, that leaves Siss the isolated one in the playground. She needs to find a different way to be. In this aspect, The Ice Palace is a coming-of-age story.

Vesaas’ book is also concerned with the interaction of place and people: Siss and Unn’s aunt as members of the village community; the different circles of belonging at school; people’s fascination with the ice palace. When a group of village men are out late searching for Unn at the waterfall, Vesaas makes clear that any mystery or beauty about the place is a product of its observers’ perception:

There is something secret here. [The men] bring out what sorrows they may have and transfer them to this midnight play of light and suspicion of death. It makes things better, and through it they fool themselves into enchantment. They are dispersed in the angles of ice, the lanterns shoot transverse gleams, meeting the lights from other cracks and prisms – quite new beams are illuminated, just as quickly extinguished again for good.

The prose, in Elizabeth Rokkan’s translation, is a mixture of flowing sentences and jagged fragments. It helps turn what might seem on the surface to be a fairly straightforward novel into a sharper reading experience that stays long in the mind.

Book details

The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas, tr. Elizabeth Rokkan (1993); original pub. Peter Owen, this edition Penguin Modern Classics; 140 pages; paperback (review copy).

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the shadow winner

A little over a month ago, we of the MBIP shadow panel revealed our shortlist. Now it’s time to announce our shadow winner… 

The votes have been counted, the numbers have been crunched… and the result was the closest it has ever been. So, before we come to the winner, we have one novel which is Highly (Highly) Commended. That novel is:

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (MacLehose Press). 

The Unseen is an excellent novel, but it was just pipped to the post by another excellent novel. And so – drum roll please – we can now reveal that the MBIP shadow winner for 2017 is… 

Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions). 

Congratulations to all involved in this worthy winner! 

Now, there is one other little matter, of course: the official MBIP winner, which will be announced tonight. Both Compass and The Unseen made the official shortlist – I wonder whether either of them will take the Prize. The shadow winner has matched the official one for the last two years. Will this be a third time? I look forward to finding out. 

The Unseen: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Roy Jacobsen, The Unseen (2013)

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (2016)


This novel depicts the Barrøy family, sole inhabitants of a Norwegian island that bears their name, in the early 20th century. Each chapter is a discrete ‘slice of life’, reflecting the largely unchanging nature of island life – there is a sense, at least to begin with, that the story of an individual chapter could have been told at any time. The family move to different rooms in the house depending on the temperature outside; and the weather dictates when they can fish.

However, time catches up with the Barrøys eventually, in more ways than one. Hans, the head of the family, wants to build a quay in order to connect the island to mainland Norway. The modern world encroaches, as does the passing of generations; Hans’ daughter Ingrid has to navigate her way between the old life and the new.

Bartlett’s & Shaw’s translation is subtle and vivid. I particularly like their use of comma splice, which makes description and action bleed together like wet paint. This technique underlines that everything is connected in island life; The Unseen explores what happens when that life is disrupted.

Should this book make the MBIP shortlist?

My honest answer is: I don’t know yet. The Unseen is a good book, but not a shoo-in for me. I’d have to see what more of the longlist is like before I could place Jacobsen’s novel definitively. Having said that, if The Unseen were to be shortlisted, I wouldn’t begrudge it a slot. 

IFFP 2015: Knausgaard and Ávila Laurel

KnausgaardKarl Ove Knausgaard, Boyhood Island: My Struggle Book 3 (2010)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2014)

I expect that Knausgaard will remain a fixture of the IFFP longlist until the whole of My Struggle receives UK publication; here he is for the third year running, anyway. By now, the style and approach are known quantities – intensely detailed chronicles of everyday life, told in the rough-and-ready tones of Don Bartlett’s translation – but the substance varies. The stereotype of My Struggle is that it’s just a catalogue of minutiae; but what made the first volume especially so vital for me was the sense of Knausgaard grappling with the deeper realities of life – love, death, memory – and the dizzying moments when these would break through all the chatter.. In Boyhood Island, though, I we’re largely left with only the chatter.

It’s sharp, disarmingly frank chatter: Knausgaard is focusing on his childhood, and evokes the sense of this as a time of exploring, discovering boundaries and testing them (for good or ill). There’s a running theme of the restrictions of inside spaces (home, school) versus the freedom of outside – to the point where the teenage Karl Ove talks in terms of treating his bedroom as the ultimate ‘outside’ space.

There are times when Knausgaard confronts the some of the realities which animate My Struggle: how can he really remember all this? what does he actually know about that time? But I cannot shake the impression that, in Boyhood Island, I got the form of My Struggle without the full effect, and that feels like having only half a book. That’s why I’m not keen to see this volume progress any further in the IFFP.

Avila Laurel

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, By Night the Mountain Burns (2008)
Translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (2014)

Relatively little African literature in translation makes it to UK publication, and By Night the Mountain Burns would be notable simply for being only the second work from Equatorial Guinea to be made commercially available in English. More than that, though, it’s also very good.

At the beginning, we don’t know why, or to whom, the narrator of Ávila Laurel’s novel is telling his story, but we do know that he’s telling it orally. He begins with the song that would be sung when the people of his island pulled canoes to the shore, then runs through various events and situations from his childhood: the grandfather who would never visit the sea; a fire that destroys the mountainside plantations; visitors who come to trade, or for more mysterious reasons. The style is dense, rhythmic and discursive; I was interested to read this article by Jethro Soutar on the choices he had to make while translating, which shows just what a precision job it was.

By Night the Mountain Burns highlights a number of opposites (I hesitate to say ‘contradictions’): the spoken and written texts; the island’s vernacular and Spanish, the language of authority; the mixture of Catholic and traditional beliefs. The tensions created by these opposites create an undercurrent that ripples through Ávila Laurel’s novel; but all is held together by the flexibility of the narrative voice. Though the narrator’s digressions might seem to risk making the novel too diffuse, in the end I found that a cohesion of tone wins out. There’s a wonderful sense that the style and voice are not passively reflecting place and circumstances, but are actively creating them. I was reminded of Zone in that way – and, like Zone, it helps just to jump right in.

I enjoyed By Night the Mountain Burns, and I’d be happy to see it on the IFFP shortlist. On a final note, this is the first time that And Other Stories have received a nod from the IFFP; they’re a great publisher, and I’m pleased to see them get this recognition at last.

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

Reading round-up: early December

Catching up on some of the books I’ve been reading lately…

FerranteElena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (2012)
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the first of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym; the author’s true identity remains unrevealed), chronicling the lives of two friends: Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. My Brilliant Friend follows the two girls through to their mid-teens in the 1950s; it captures the complexity and uncertainty of childhood friendships. Elena (the narrator) is by turns drawn to Lila and intimidated by her. Lila (whose viewpoint we never witness) remains a mysterious figure, moving towards Elena, then away, taking unexpected paths in life and love. The girls’ story is played out against the background of Naples at a point of change, and with the desire to escape their poor neighbourhood, ready or not. It’s an intriguing start to Ferrante’s series.

My Brilliant Friend is published by Europa Editions.

Tore Renberg, See You Tomorrow (2013)
Translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella (2014)

This hefty (550-page) novel chronicles three days in the lives of a varied cast of characters, including Pål, a civil servant mired in debt; his daughters; some of their friends and acquaintances; and the gangsters whom Pål has turned to in the hope of resolving his situation. Renberg creates a web of almost a dozen viewpoint characters, many with secrets to guard. See You Tomorrow feels to me a little too long for the story it’s telling; but it’s testament to Renberg’s skill that he manages such a large cast of characters and keeps up no small amount of momentum.

See You Tomorrow is published by Arcadia Books.

Schalansky

Judith Schalansky, The Giraffe’s Neck (2011)
Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside (2014)

In a school in the former East Germany, Inge Lohmark surveys her new class. She thinks she has the measure of them; indeed, she thinks she has the measure of most things. Lohmark’s worldview is informed by the biology that she teaches, and can come across as cold (she has little time for her colleague’s more informal, friendly approach to teaching, for example). But what The Giraffe’s Neck reveals is a character trying to hang on to what she has as the world changes around her. By novel’s end, we start to see through Lohmark’s façade, as she realises that perhaps even she must evolve.

The Giraffe’s Neck is published by Bloomsbury Books.

Andreas Maier, The Room (2010)
Translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle (2014)

The Room is a fictionalised study of Andreas Maier’s Uncle J. Exactly what might be fictional, and what real, becomes something of a moot point in the face of such a larger-than-life character as J – he’s smelly, prose to outbursts of temper, forever tinkering away at the machines in his room. Maier’s portrait of Uncle J can hardly be called sympathetic; but perhaps there is ultimately some light in this tale of a man and his place in a small community.

The Room is published by Frisch & Co.

Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor (1999)

This was a book group choice, and my first Palahniuk novel. Over the past year-and-a-bit, the book group has given me my first experience of Dave Eggers and A.M. Homes, neither of which I particularly enjoyed. Reading Palahniuk was better, but still left me feeling frustrated. Survivor concerns one Tender Branson, whom we first meet as he’s recording his story into the black box of a crashing aeroplane. Branson is the last survivor of a death cult, which led him to become quite the media concern. I appreciate how Palahniuk underlines the superficiality of the celebrity machine (fifteen years on, it feels right on the money in many ways). But I got annoyed that this ostensibly spoken text was peppered with repeated phrases that felt more like self-consciously ‘literary’ writing. I suspect I’m becoming more attentive to the prose of what I read, and reactions like this may be the price to pay for that.

Survivor is published by Vintage Books.

#IFFP2014: Ogawa, Knausgaard, Mingarelli

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (1998)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2013)

RevengeI’ve read two of Yoko Ogawa’s books previously (see my thoughts on Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool); each time, I have been struck by how she anatomises the dark psyches of her characters. Revenge is a little different: a collection of eleven linked stories, it unsettles more through the overall effect of the tales as a composite.

Revenge begins with ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, whose narrator goes to buy two strawberry shortcakes; a conversation with someone from the neighbouring shop reveals that the narrator is doing this in memory of her six-year-old son, whom she found dead in a refrigerator. This is how Ogawa’s stories work: mundane details are shown to have dark, sometimes even absurd, underpinnings.

‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ ends with its narrator discovering a young woman crying in the bakery’s kitchen.  This young woman reappears in the second tale’s, ‘Fruit Juice’, when she invites that story’s narrator, a boy from her school, to go with her as moral support to a meal with the father she is about to meet for the first time. Strawberry cake is served is served at this meal; by story’s end, we not only know why the young woman is crying as she sits in her kitchen, we also anticipate with dismay what her reaction to the current customer’s order is likely to be.

As Ogawa’s collection continues, more links emerge between the stories: at first, isolated details reappear; then characters seem to recur (the identities of some remain sketchy, so you can’t be entirely sure whether or not character X mentioned in one story is also character Y from another); one story in Revenge may appear to be fictional in the reality of another; images and events are repeated or echoed in strange new contexts. The relative straightforwardness of Ogawa’s prose (and Stephen Snyder’s effectively matter-of-fact translation) only heightens the sense of being caught up in a world where it’s uncertain which is worse: the thought that all the details of reality won’t cohere, or the thought that they might. Revenge is one of those story collections that works, and is best appreciated, as a complete whole; it’s also one that stays in the mind long after reading.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Man in Love: My Struggle, Book 2 (2009)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2013)

Knausgaard 2Where Volume 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle focused on its author’s adolescence and reaction to his father’s death, Volume 2 chronicles the period when Knausgaard left his first wife and moved to Sweden, where he fell in love with Linda, and examines his life as a husband and father. Reading A Man in Love has been a strange experience because, while the general palette of the first book remains – the dense treatment of everyday minutiae, punctuated by reflections on life and art – some quality that made A Death in the Family feel transcendent to me is missing.

Knausgaard takes up his key concerns from the first volume: that he feels preoccupied by the business of everyday life when what he really wants (needs) to do is write; and that he is more deeply moved by contemplating art and the natural world than by those closest to him. In this volume, he also talks more about how fatherhood affects his sense of masculinity; feeling constrained by Swedish society; and how the heady rush of falling in love with Linda didn’t last.

Don Barlett’s translation is as fine as ever, but A Man in Love doesn’t touch me as deeply as its predecessor did. When I read A Death in the Family, I could feel the clash of Knausgaard’s emotions rising off the page; with this book, that clash is still on the page, but it stays there. To me, A Death in the Family felt like something that Knausgaard needed to write in order to work through that part of his life; A Man in Love is good enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t have that same sense of urgency.

Hubert Mingarelli, A Meal in Winter (2012)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2013)

Meal in WinterHubert Mingarelli is a prolific author in his native France, but A Meal in Winter is the first of his books to appear in English. It’s a novella narrated by one of three German guards who are sent out to retrieve an escaped Jewish prisoner. On their way back to the prison camp, the guards and their captive stop off in an abandoned house, and start to prepare a meal of soup. When a Pole walking past the house also seeks shelter, his raw anti-Semitism leads the guards to question what they’re about to do.

With A Meal in Winter being so short, the stage is set for a tight, intense piece of fiction. In some ways, this is exactly what we get: Mingarelli strips out most of the historical detail, thereby closing the distance between reader and book. The characters’ world is not ‘World War Two’ understood as a period of history; their world is this journey, this landscape, this house, and we are there with them.

It doesn’t seem quite right, though, to say that we come to empathise with the guards as the novella progresses. It’s more that we see the contours of their worldview, and how that is challenged by their experiences; empathy at a further remove, perhaps. But I can’t shake the feeling that the full intensity of this situation doesn’t quite come through the sparseness of Mingarelli’s prose (or Sam Taylor’s translation). For me, A Meal in Winter is almost there… but only almost.

***

What of these books’ chances on the IFFP shortlist? Even though the Knausgaard disappointed me, I will be extremely surprised if it doesn’t make the shortlist (though I don’t expect it to be my preferred winner). I would be happy to see Ogawa’s book on the shortlist, and suspect it has a good chance. The Mingarelli, I don’t know: it didn’t really work well enough for me to want to see it shortlisted, but it has been better received in the reviews I’ve seen, so it may just be a book that didn’t click with me.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

"I saw life; I thought about death"

Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Death in the Family: My Struggle, Book 1 (2009)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2012)

Knausgaard book 1Coming to a book like this relatively late – when I’ve seen so much said about it, in so many places – makes me wonder: how will I react to it? For this surely isn’t a book to inspire indifference. If you don’t know the background, Karl Ove Knausgaard has become something of a phenomenon in his native Norway for My Struggle, a six-volume sequence of… novels? memoirs? something else? which draws on his life in immense and (on the evidence of this first volume, anyway) uncompromising detail.

A Death in the Family (the UK editions of the My Struggle books have been given individual titles) begins with a meditation on death which is one of the most affecting passages of writing that I’ve read in months. Why, Knausgaard asks, do we try to conceal the reality of death from ourselves, when we know that it’s an inevitable part of life? Slightly less than half of the book is then given over to an account of events in (mostly) the author teenage years. The second half focuses mainly on how Knausgaard reacted to his father’s sudden death.

But that is not (or not all) of the struggle that animates this book. One thing that becomes apparent very early on is that the deepest feelings Knausgaard experiences arise from art. He is quite clear on the implications of this for himself:

When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfil a whole life. Not mine at any rate. (p. 32)

When Knausgaard writes about art in this book, we experience something of how he feels; but we also see the difficulty he has in comprehending and expressing those feelings:

…the moment I focused my gaze on the picture again all my reasoning vanished in the surge of energy and beauty that arose in me. Yes, yes, yes, I heard. That’s where it is. That’s where I have to go. But what was it I had said yes to? Where was it I had to go? (p. 186)

Immediately after this, Knausgaard returns to more prosaic activity: microwaving a meal, washing, fetching cutlery, eating.  Earlier in A Death in the Family, he talks about yearning ‘to write something exceptional one day’ (p. 28), and feeling thwarted in that ambition by the day-to-day business of life.  And we see this manifest in the form of the book: Knausgaard will spend pages on the minutiae of events, but moments like his experience of art are rather fewer and further between. We feel the weight of all that detail bearing down on the author’s ability to express his innermost feelings.

This is not confined to Knausgaard’s encounters with art. One of the most powerful sequences in the book for me is when Karl Ove and his brother view their father’s body in a chapel, while a gardener mows the lawn outside. Knausgaard registers great detail about the body (of course), but is as aware of the noisy lawnmower as he is of his response to what he’s doing. The fact of his father’s death has no more significance in that situation than does a spot of gardening.

At the back of all this is the issue of memory. We are reminded several times that human memory is fallible; so just how are we to take all this information we are given about Knasgaard’s life – information that creates a pictures more vivid at times than our own lived experience? Perhaps we can see it as an expression of the mix of knowable and unknowable that his father’s life is to Knausgaard; Karl Ove has seen so much, but cannot know how the father he once looked up to became a man who drank himself to an early death.

A Death in the Family begins with a question about death, and ends with something of a conclusion about death. I’d like to quote that conclusion here, because it struck me so much, and because I think it sums up Knausgaard’s book so well:

…death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor. (p. 393)

Here, the everyday becomes interchangeable with the depths of existence; only by writing about one, it seems, could Knausgaard find a way to address the other.

Book notes: Moran, Harstad, Brill

Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History (2009)

I’ve long been interested in social and cultural history, and there will always be a place on my shelves for books that illuminate the more unusual corners of history. On Roads is just such a book.

The British road system in the post-war years may not sound a particularly interesting subject for a work of history, but this is part of Moran’s point – roads are so commonplace that we hardly ever stop to think about them. What Moran suggests, however, is that the road system was a far more pragmatic creation than we might assume, and that the Brits’ relationship with their roads has, from the earliest days of the motorway, been an ambivalent one.

The sheer range of topics that Moran covers is remarkable, from road signs to service stations, caravans to roadside ecology. But, more than this, he tells fascinating stories (I had no idea that the design of British road signs had been so controversial) and makes some astute observations (such as that the image of the straight road has traditionally represented ‘cold modernity’ in England, whereas in America it’s a symbol of freedom and escape). On Roads takes an ostensibly ordinary topic and turns it into a rich and worthwhile book.

Link: Joe Moran’s blog

Johan Harstad, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? (2005/11)

Stavanger, Norway, 1999: Mattias is a gardener, perfectly content with his lot. Born on the day of the first moon landing, Mattias’ hero is not first-man-on-the-moon Neil Armstrong but runner-up Buzz Aldrin: willing to cede the glory, willing to be the second man. That’s what Mattias is happy to be – a cog in the machine, unconcerned whether others notice him.

But life won’t stand still and, when Mattias’ partner leaves him and his employer goes out of business, he accepts an invitation to go to the Faroe Islands with his friend Jørn’s band. However, instead of acting as the band’s soundman (or, as Jørn wanted, their singer), Mattias falls in with a psychiatrist named Havstein and the three inhabitants of his institution for those not quite ready to live independently – and now Mattias’ life is set to change.

Johan Harstad’s debut (translated by Deborah Dawkin) is a big, baggy novel which is unusually structured insofar as the narrative beats are not quite where one might expect them to be – but this gives the novel a distinctive flow. The story is told so thoroughly from Mattias’ vantage point that it distorts the very shape of what we learn; we gain only brief, distant glimpses of the other Mattias, the one who (for good or ill) is no quiet mediocrity.

There may be times when the prose drags, but some of the best moments are also the most densely written; overall, Harstad paints an interesting portrait of a man whose life is ordinary and remarkable all at once.

This review first appeared in We Love This Book.

Link: Video interview with Johan Harstad

Marius Brill, How to Forget (2011)

Magician Peter Ruchio was humiliated, and his career derailed, by a prank played by Titus Black at the latter’s eighth birthday party; fifteen years later, Black has grown up to be a famous illusionist (though he is not above committing murder to preserve his secrets), whilst Peter is performing tricks in restaurants and old people’s homes. A chance encounter with Kate Minola, a grifter on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, gives Peter the opportunity to take his revenge on Black; but his experiences ultimately lead  Peter to seek the help of Dr Chris Tavasligh, a neuroscientist working on a way to ‘reboot’ the human brain, thereby erasing all memories. That was three years ago, and Tavasligh subsequently disappeared; the book in our hands purports to be the scientist’s collected papers.

As befits a novel about a magician, How to Forget is full of misdirection; one is never quite sure which way the characters will turn, who can be trusted – and there’s a sense at the end that the real story is not the one we thought it was (the allusions to The Taming of the Shrew in the protagonists’ names serve, as far as I can tell, to highlight the idea of a story within a story). Not everything in the book works so well: the larger-than-life tone and occasional comic interludes tend to rub against the more serious episodes, rather than working with them; and it seems to me that Brill’s material on memory doesn’t quite integrate successfully with the plot. Better is the author’s comparison of Peter’s and Kate’s professions, which leads them to face up to some difficult questions; and the caper narrative has all the page-turning tension and momentum one could wish.

Link: Marius Brill’s website

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