Taghistorical fiction

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.

#Woolfalong: Orlando

OrlandoTime for another post on #Woolfalong, Heavenali’s year-long celebration of Virginia Woolf, who was a new writer to me at the start of 2016 and is fast becoming a favourite. The theme for July and August is ‘biography’; Orlando is included as an option, despite really being a novel – and I had a copy on my shelves, so that was what I went for.

I’m not going to try to encompass everything I could say about Orlando in this post. I just want to pick out a couple of things that have most struck me. The first has to do with the book’s subtitle: ‘A Biography’. Chances are you will know the premise, but just in case you don’t: Orlando narrates the story of a young nobleman who becomes a favourite of Elizabeth I, then ambassador to Constantinople, where he transforms into a woman; she then lives on into the 20th century, without visibly ageing. The novel is framed as a biography, and is written in the style of one. But I started to realise that there’s more to it than this – the biographical form is fundamental to what Orlando is.

It’s another example of how Woolf uses writing to create alternatives to geographical space in her fiction. I first came across this in Mrs Dalloway, which places its characters within a landscape of consciousness: most of the key events occur at the level of thought and perception, but the way the book is written puts these on the same level as events that take place in physical streets and houses.

In the case of Orlando, Woolf creates a landscape of time. This is where the biography form is key, because the point of historical biography is that the individual is a subject is a fixed point, and the rest of history happens around them. Orlando is an individual who moves through time like others move through space, and the prose is elastic enough to facilitate that: months or years may pass in a few lines, but Orlando is always there and the book will reorient around her. This is what gives the experience of reading Orlando such a feeling of openness.

The other thing I want to mention – and I haven’t come across this much in Woolf’s work so far, certainly not to the same degree – is that Orlando is very funny. Much of its humour comes from Woolf’s sly reminders that we are reading fiction. For example:

 

Orlando quote

I’m not exactly unfamiliar with the idea of fiction reminding me that it’s fiction, but I’ve rarely seen it done with Woolf’s lightness of touch (and Orlando predates most of the other examples that I’ve read). It’s as though she’s stretching the reality of her text a little too far, just for a short time – a toy to be picked up and discarded again.

With my last couple of #Woolfalong reads, I wasn’t quite as taken as with Mrs Dalloway; but now I’m right back up there, and eager to read more Woolf.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

Orlando: A Biography (1928) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperbackA new post

Addlands by Tom Bullough

AddlandsTom Bullough grew up on a farm in Radnorshire on the Welsh borders. As an administrative county, Radnorshire is no more, having been officially absorbed into Powys in 1974; but Bullough notes on his website that there’s still a Radnorshire which persists in people’s conception of the area. Addlands, Bullough’s fourth novel, is set in Radnorshire; and that sense of a distinct place, a specific landscape, runs deep throughout.

The novel begins in 1941, on the day when Etty Hamer gives birth to a son, Oliver. Idris, Etty’s older husband, is out ploughing the fields; the farm is his life – even the midwife’s news of a bomb being dropped nearby doesn’t shake Idris from his work:

‘Oh,’ Idris repeated, as if this woman were a stranger, as if they had not sat within ten yards of one another every Sunday for the past twenty years. He turned his eyes another inch into the darkness and held up the lamp to light the old wooden bridge that led across the flem to the house. ‘I had best fodder the beasts, I had. Please to go on in, Mrs Prosser.’

Subsequent chapters return to the Hamers and their farm every few years, all the way through to 2011. Oliver grows up, to become a figure of some renown in the local community. There are changes in the family and other relationships; the farm and wider area face shifting fortunes; new technologies and social developments leave their mark. Through it all, Addlands maintains a distinctive relationship between reader, character, and setting.

One thing that stands out early on is Bullough’s use of dialect. Here, for example, is a conversation between the young Oliver and a friend in 1952:

Oliver grunted, took the spare pair of gloves and pulled one over his bandaged hand.

‘You looks like your puppy just grew up a fox!’

‘Mam is in a kank.’

‘I hearkened her, to be honest with you. Kept back again, is it?’

‘Six blasted stripes.’

‘By Gar, boy! What did you do? Punch old Willie?’

‘Griffin.’

‘Griffin,’ Albert snorted. ‘Still having a go, then, is he?’

Even in context, it takes a little time to decode this exchange about getting in trouble. But I don’t find this dialect to be like – say – the nicknames in Morvern Callar, keeping the reader out of a secret world. It’s more a feature of the landscape, something to which you do have to adjust, but which will become familiar in time.

Above all, though, what strikes me about Addlands is how the progression of the novel is oriented around the place rather than the characters. If you’ll forgive a generalisation: typically, in a generational saga like this, we (for which read: I) might expect the family’s experiences to be the linking thread, and for the book to deal with changes in the wider world in the context of how they affect the family. We still get that in Addlands, but there’s a subtle difference in emphasis: some key events in the ‘human’ story of the Hamers are missing, and everything is related back to the farm above all. So this becomes a story of the family as a part of their landscape.

There’s a scene set in 1957 where Idris is reading over the detailed records he has kept of the local farms’ sheep flocks. “This was the knowledge that allowed you to survive,” comments Bullough’s narrator, “not the doddle you were told in a classroom. Had [Idris] wished, he could have traced the blood-line of almost any sheep within fifteen miles, as like as not through forty generations.”

Contrast this with a moment from 1996, when Oliver is visited by a young woman who admires the poetry written by Oliver’s ex: “You’re surely aware that you appear in her work?” says the visitor. “I mean her Drought collection. That more or less started me writing myself…It’s one of the formative books in post-pastoral poetry.” Oliver’s reply is tart: “Post-pastoral? We in’t done yet, girl.”

Four decades earlier, the farming life was ingrained in this land, powered by knowledge and instinct which had built up over years. Now, it has become something that can viewed from a distance, in the abstract. But, as Oliver notes, the farms are still there: life still goes on, despite everything. According to the novel’s epigraph, by W.H. Howse, the word ‘addlands’ refers to “the border of plough land which is ploughed last of all”. That’s the land of the Hamers: the land that remains to the end.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Addlands (2016) by Tom Bullough, Granta hardback

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: a Shiny New Books review

EnrigueI’m back at Shiny New Books with a review of a new Mexican novel: Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death (translated by Natasha Wimmer). As I note in my introduction, there’s some really exciting fiction from Mexico appearing in my translation (see my posts on books by Yuri Herrera, Paulette Jonguitud, and Juan Pablo Villalobos, for example); Sudden Death is no exception.

How to describe it, though? The novel is built around a game of tennis between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. But it also deals with the forces that shaped the formation of the modern world in the 16th and 17th centuries – and which, perhaps, still help to shape the world today.  A synopsis can’t do it justice; you just have to read it.

A few links:

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Sudden Death (2013) by Álvaro Enrigue, tr. Natasha Wimmer (2016), Harvill Secker 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.

mbi2016-logo-rgb-pink

 

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.

David Lagercrantz, Fall of Man in Wilmslow (2009/15)

WilmslowI’m slightly wary of fiction that centres on genuine historical figures. It comes from a personal preference: that I’m not particularly interested in using historical fiction to learn about history – I want the experience of reading fiction first and foremost. So I prefer something like Mrs. Hemingway, which casts its material into interesting fictional shapes, over a thinly-veiled historical biography. The line between the two is fine, and can be tricky to walk.

Despite my natural wariness, I was intrigued by the sound of this novel by David Lagercrantz (the author who’s continuing Steig Larsson’s Millennium series). Set in 1954, Fall of Man in Wilmslow (which is translated from the Swedish by George Goulding) focuses on Leonard Corell, a police detective investigating the death of Alan Turing, who has apparently killed himself with a poisoned apple.

Corell’s position means that he has to work backwards: at first he knows simply that Turing was convicted for performing homosexual acts. Only later does he learn about Turing’s mathematical work, and later still about his work at Bletchley Park. For me, this led to a curious inversion of what can often happen with translated fiction: rather than coming across unfamiliar terms, I actually knew more about Turing’s story (in outline, if not detail) than the protagonist. Perhaps that’s why I found that Fall of Man in Wilmslow never quite shook off its biographical aspect.

In terms of the novel-as-novel, Lagercrantz casts Corell as a part-reflection of Turing: for example, he has his own flashes of brilliance, being able to deduce the kind of secret work that Turing was undertaking at Bletchley, which brings him to the attention of those who would rather that such things were kept secret. It’s an interesting frame for Turing’s story, though perhaps inevitably Corell is not as compelling a figure as the mathematician. Fall of Man in Wilmslow walks that fine line, but not quite deftly enough.

Sara Taylor, The Shore (2015): Shiny New Books review

ShoreThere’s a new issue of Shiny New Books in the world, and it includes my review of The Shore, the debut novel by Sara Taylor. The Shore is set on a small group of islands off the coast of Virginia, and focuses on the members of two families over a span of 350 years (reaching into both the past and future). The chapters are arranged non-chronologically, meaning that the reader has gradually to piece together the complex picture of family secrets that emerges.

You can read my review in full here.

IFFP 2015: Bannerhed and Lee

RavensTomas Bannerhed, The Ravens (2011)
Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (2014)

The Ravens is narrated by Klas, who lives on his family farm in the 1970s. He watches his father Agne toiling away, and dreams of a different life for himself. Klas loves nature, but has no wish to inherit the farm; he can see what the work has done – is doing – to his father, and doesn’t want to fall into that trap of obsession and despair; though at times it seems that something similar might be happening to him. The arrival of a city girl, Veronika, offers Klas a glimpse of what life could be; though the reality of Veronika’s life may not be as golden as Klas’ perception of it.

In terms of the IFFP longlist, Boyhood Island is the most obvious comparison to The Ravens; Bannerhed’s prose comes across as more ‘crafted’ than Knausgaard’s, but I like some of the effects Bannerhed creates. Agne’s perspective remains distant from us, even as he becomes more and more troubled; which makes those moments when we do see how much he has been affected by his illness all the more forceful. Klas’ descriptions of the natural world stand out among his narration as the moments when he is most at peace. I think there’s a good chance that The Ravens will make an appearance on the IFFP shortlist, and I wouldn’t mind if it did.

Investigation

Jung-myung Lee, The Investigation (2014)
Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

In 1944, a guard, Sugiyama Dozan, is found hanged inside Fukuoka Prison; a more junior guard, Watanabe Yuichi, is tasked with investigating the death. All is not quite as it first seems: Sugiyama’s lips have been sewn shut, and this feared individual has a poem tucked in his pocket. What’s going on? Watanabe’s investigation comes to centre on one of the prisoners, the Korean poet Yun Dong-ju (a real-life historical figure); gradually, Watanabe uncovers the extent of what has been happening at Fukuoka, and why Sugiyama lost his life.

I’m torn over The Investigation. On the one hand, this is a book about the power of words and literature – poetry’s capacity to change minds; the tension between Watanabe’s love of reading and his new duties as prison censor; the importance for the Korean prisoners of holding on to their own names and language. I’m naturally sympathetic to a novel like that.

However, for a novel whose plot is so celebratory of language, the prose feels rather… ordinary. There’s also a touch of novel-as-history-lesson about The Investigation; this can be interesting – and it often is, in this case – but it’s not really what I want from a novel, especially one up for a literary award. I can’t really see The Investigation going any further in the IFFP: it’s OK, but so are many other novels; compared to the rest of the longlist, it’s one of the weakest titles for me.

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

IFFP 2015: Erpenbeck and González

EndofDaysJenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (2012)
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (2014)

I’ve come across several novels on this year’s IFFP longlist which examine the twentieth century through the lives of ‘ordinary’ individuals, but this may be the sharpest one yet. The protagonist of The End of Days is born in the Austrian Empire at the start of the century; each of the novel’s five ‘books’ imagines that she died at a different point in her life; the short ‘intermezzo’ sections between them run through all the small differences – walking down this street instead of that; a window left open to let the air in – that could have kept her alive.

The first thing to say is that Susan Bernofsky’s translation is very potent indeed. When I read the first page, in which the protagonist is buried as a baby, it was so powerful that I almost had to put the book down (something that rarely happens to me): as handfuls of earth are thrown into the child’s grave, each is described as covering the girl or woman who might have been. The rest of this first section is full of tiny but resonant details, like the toy whose bells make the same jingling noise they did the day before, although so very much has changed. The protagonist’s death at such a young age is presented as a hole in reality for her family, beside which all else becomes insignificant.

The structure Erpenbeck has used enables effects like this. In The End of Days, ‘history’ in the broad sense doesn’t change; it is the individual’s interaction with history that changes. In each iteration of the protagonist’s life, her death means something different: in one section, she joins the Communist Party and moves to the Soviet Union, but dies labouring in the gulag; in another, she escapes internment and dies thirty years later, a celebrated writer and Party member; in the last, she lives to be ninety, and is one resident among many in an old people’s home. Erpenbeck’s novel intertwines the personal with the grand sweep of history to great effect, underlining the importance of both. I would certainly expect to see The End of Days on the IFFP shortlist; for me, it’s potentially a winner.

ItBWtS

Tomás González, In the Beginning Was the Sea (1983)
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne (2014)

One of the interesting things about the IFFP (or, if you prefer, something that points to just how much literature from other languages remains untranslated into English) is that we’ll see the odd book which was originally written much earlier than the translation. Such is the case with In the Beginning Was the Sea, the first novel by Colombian writer González, and his first to appear in English, some thirty years on. I actually read this last year, but didn’t review it at the time, because I didn’t particularly care for it. Looking back, I think I was thrown by what the publicity material said about the book’s inspiration (which, for that reason, I won’t reveal here).

This is the story of Elena and J., a couple of intellectuals who leave behind city life to begin a new life by the sea. But money problems mean that they are going to have to earn a living from their land, and it’s not going to be plain sailing. There are hints (and increasingly clearer indications) that all is not going to end well; the novel becomes a chronicle of ill fortune, with a claustrophobic air of dread created by Frank Wynne’s translation. We know that something is coming, but not precisely what – and, for all the foreshadowing, González doesn’t make it feel too staged. I appreciated In the Beginning Was the Sea more the second time around, though I don’t anticipate that it would necessarily make my shortlist.

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

IFFP 2015: Fois and Mortier

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

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

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

Mortier

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

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

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

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

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