Tag: historical fiction

History, memory, complicity: German Fantasia by Philippe Claudel (tr. Julian Evans)

Is it really so long since I read Brodeck’s Report? I haven’t read Philippe Claudel nearly enough. His latest book in English translation is a cycle of five stories set in 20th century German, exploring themes of history, memory and complicity.

The opening ‘Ein Mann’ sets the tone. It sees a German soldier abandoning his post. We don’t know his name, and the landscape through which he travels is also largely anonymous. He’s been an unthinking cog in the machinery of the Nazi regime: “Was he guilty? Guilty of having obeyed? Or guilty of not having disobeyed? All he had done was follow. Did that make him less responsible than the others?”

Now that he sees what he has participated in, he wants to get away – he’s not really thinking about where, as long as it’s somewhere else. The ending of the story suggests, however, that he can’t outrun the past.

Recurring throughout the book is the name of Viktor, who may or may not be the same character each time, but always seems to have been an active participant in atrocity. In ‘Ein Mann,’ he’s in charge of the soldier’s concentration camp. In ‘Irma Grese’, though, he’s an old man in a care home in the 1990s, albeit with a past in the regime. 

Irma herself is a girl who’s been given a job in the care home, part of which is specifically to look after Viktor, who happens to be the mayor’s father. Irma resents the job, and resents the pitiful Viktor. She takes out her frustrations on him by eating his food and mistreating him other ways. In an inversion of ‘Ein Mann’, the Viktor of ‘Irma Grese’ is victim rather than oppressor now. But, as Irma will find, there are no real winners in these stories, not in the face of the cruelty that flows through the book.

Elsewhere, Claudel explores the fallibility of memory. In ‘Sex und Linden’, an 90-year-old man looks back on his adolescence, and a time when he was seduced by a beautiful woman who kept whispering another man’s name (‘Viktor’, as it happens). It all sounds a bit too good to be true, and along with the man’s happy memory is a sense that the golden past can’t be recaptured, if it was there in the first place. 

‘Die Kleine’ is the story of a young Jewish girl who has been rescued from a concentration camp, and taken to start a new life in a new household. She pictures the elements of her old life wrapped up in a handkerchief, but this memory is precarious. First, she recalls the old elements in a different way each time. Later, they start to lose their vibrancy:

The handkerchief, folded and tidied away in her brain, held many things but they were things that no longer moved, the way that clothes that have lost the bodies that used to inhabit them still keep a trace of their shape and their smells, but not much. Everything the little girl kept in the handkerchief reminded her of what had happened before, and over there. But over there was gone. There was only here. 

The story which I found to lay down the greatest challenge to the reader was ‘Gnadentod’  – not in the sense of ‘difficulty’ but in its degree of confrontation. In this story, Claudel imagines a version of history in which the German artist Franz Marc did not die in 1916 at Verdun, but was instead placed in an asylum and subjected to a ‘mercy killing’ (to translate the story’s title) by the Nazis in 1940 due to his mental health. 

Then again, maybe that’s just the official line. In one startling sequence, Claudel has Marc’s real-life biographer defending his scholarship in the face of the story’s prevailing fiction. This is a stark experience because we’re seeing fake history being created before our eyes and paraded as the truth.

In various ways throughout German Fantasia, Claudel illustrates how history and memory can be distorted (deliberately or otherwise). He also suggests that his characters are caught in the shadow of German history, no matter where or when they are. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

Salt Publishing: The Peckham Experiment by Guy Ware

The Peckham Experiment was a project begun in 1926, aimed at encouraging working-class families to better themselves through access to leisure and cultural activities. Guy Ware imagines twins born into this project: Charlie and JJ. As the novel begins, we meet Charlie aged 85, looking back on his life to write a eulogy for JJ.

The brothers’ parents were communist, and JJ and Charlie carried into adulthood ideals of improving life for everyone. JJ was a council architect, looking to design better housing for working-class people. Charlie was a surveyor, building those homes. As time went on, they would find their ideals compromised, and placed in the shadow of structural failure and disaster.

Charlie’s narrative voice is dense and discursive, his recollections haphazard at times, but still sharp. It’s a voice that can weave together the personal, political and historical. As a result, the twins’ experiences reflect undercurrents that play out across broader society in the novel. It’s fascinating to read.

Published by Salt.

Santa Monica Press: The Revenge of Joe Wild by Andrew Komarnyckyj

Andrew Komarnyckyj wrote one of my favourite books from last year, Ezra Slef. That novel was a joyous romp about a pompous writer who makes a deal with the Devil. The Revenge of Joe Wild is something rather different: a coming-of-age yarn set in 19th century America. What unites the two books is that they’re anchored by strong narrative voices. Here’s Joe Wild:

The schoolhouse was the worst house in the world ‘cept our house. It had a bell on the roof that went right through you like a stone through a window when it rang. If you warn’t inside when that bell rang woe betide you, you was in for a leatherin’. I knows better’n most about leatherin’.

In 1861, Joe is a twelve-year-old boy from a poor Illinois family. When he’s wrongly accused of murdering a neighbour, Joe runs away from town and into an even wilder world than the one he knew. Eventually he will join the army and return home a man, to set the past right.

Joe Wild is as compelling in its own way as Ezra Slef, a tale of vivid set-pieces that just doesn’t let up. If you’re looking for a rip-roaring adventure, this is a book well worth your time.

Published by Santa Monica Press.

Fly on the Wall Press: Man at Sea by Liam Bell

The third novel by Scottish writer Liam Bell is an intriguing historical tale. Stuart was disfigured during the war when his plane caught fire in Malta. He’s long harboured a secret love for Beth, the nurse from his convalescence. In 1961, Beth contacts Stuart because she wants to go to Malta and find Joe, the son of her late husband Victor. Stuart is happy to accompany her, not just for the chance to spend time with Beth, but also because he may be able to take revenge on the man who caused his burns.

A second plot strand follows young Joe in 1941, as his childhood games are interrupted by the news that his father has left the family behind while serving overseas. Back in 1961, it doesn’t take too long for Stuart and Beth to find Joe, but there are revelations to come – not least that Victor is apparently still alive.

I enjoyed reading Man at Sea: it’s briskly paced and evocatively written. Nothing is quite as it seems, so there is plenty to uncover in a relatively short space. Bell’s characters have to face the question of whether it’s better to hold on to the past or let go. They come to something of a conclusion on that question in a quietly poignant ending.

Published by Fly on the Wall Press.

Peirene Press: Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (tr. Adriana Hunter)

This latest title from Peirene Press takes us to Paris in 1918, where we meet Jeanne, who makes paper flowers for a living. Her husband Toussaint has been recovering from facial injuries sustained in the war. He told her not to visit him in hospital, and she has feared the thought of what’s happened to him. 

Now, Toussaint has returned home, face covered, unable to speak. Not only is he a stranger to Jeanne, she struggles to see him as a person at first:

She doesn’t think, He’s here, she thinks, It’s here. This unknown thing that’s coming home to her. That she’s dreaded, and longed for. It’s here. It’s going to come in, it’s going to make its life with her, and with Léo [their daughter] too, it will come here, into this room that the two of them have shared so little since they left Belleville

Jeanne could be talking about Toussaint’s disfigurement in the abstract here, as much as Toussaint the person. Winter Flowers reminds me of David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, in that both are First World War novels which strongly evoke sensation and feeling. Hunter’s translation is so vivid, as Villeneuve’s novel explores not just Jeanne and Toussaint working out how to relate again, but also the different traumas of the community around them. This is the first of Villeneuve’s novels to appear in English translation; I hope there will be more. 

Henningham Family Press: The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths

Henningham Family Press and Paul Griffiths were two of my favourite discoveries last year, and now here’s another beautifully produced book by the author of Mr. Beethoven. I was looking forward to The Tomb Guardians, but even so I wasn’t prepared for it. 

When I look at my most favourite novels, it’s not about subject matter or subgenre – it’s about the reaction I have to reading them. The writing somehow bypasses the rational brain and affects me at a more fundamental level. The Tomb Guardians is that sort of novel. 

Two conversations intertwine within the book. The first (in italics) is between the guardians of Christ’s tomb. They’ve woken up to find that the stone has been moved, the tomb is empty, and one of their number has also vanished. The guardians can’t work out exactly how all this happened, but they know they can’t admit to having been asleep. They have to concoct a plausible explanation that won’t land them in trouble. 

In the present day, a lecturer is preparing a talk on the ‘sleeping grave guard’ paintings by the 16th-century German artist Bernhard Strigel [example], which are reproduced in the book as colour plates). The lecturer feels the talk is “falling apart”, and discusses it with a friend. The key question occupying the lecturer is: why doesn’t Strigel’s placid depiction of the guards reflect the Gospel of Matthew? The lecturer has some ideas about this: what if the figures are meant to reflect Strigel’s contemporary reality rather than the biblical one? What if they’re not meant to be the guardians of Christ’s tomb at all? 

Both conversations then revolve around a fundamental absence of knowledge, though approached from opposite directions. The guardians are constructing a falsehood to explain away the empty tomb. The lecturer and friend are reaching for a truth about Strigel’s paintings that they’ll never fully grasp. 

Maybe I’ve made The Tomb Guardians sound heavy so far, but actually it wears its seriousness lightly. The book is at its most playful when the conversations seem to talk to each other:

What?

It’s this lecture.

Yes.

I just don’t like it.

It’s falling apart on me.

There’s a lot I don’t like, beginning with that dirty great rock having shifted on its own-i-o.

That’s happened before.

He shouldn’t have gone.

Not like this. The whole point it’s…. Never mind.

No, he shouldn’t have gone.

It’s also interesting to see how the balance of the novel changes. The guardians feel dominant at the beginning, racing ahead to work their story out as the lecturer is hesitantly forming questions. Then the lecturer’s strand takes control, forging ahead with art-historical exploration, at times almost seeming as though it might be the guardians’ undoing. 

The ending of The Tomb Guardians has the same sudden power as that of Convenience Store Woman, as we experience something of what is at stake for the characters. Griffiths’ novel doesn’t resolve, but stays vividly on the knife-edge of uncertainty. This undermines everything the lecturer has worked towards:

These four were my life. For years. And still there was so much I wanted to say to them. If they’d been here, I could have done that – never mind that they wouldn’t have been able to respond. I could have said they’re the only human beings right there, at exactly the right moment, and they’re missing the event. I could have said their sleep is an admonishment to us, who also sleep through so much….

But the lecturer’s friend sees how it is: you have to go on from where you are, even if there is doubt. For the guardians, meanwhile, there is possibility in the uncertainty as we leave them, and this opens the book up again just as we close it. 

The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian: Women in Translation Month

I’ve had this book (originally published in Chinese in 2005) on my shelves for a few years, and finally took the time to read it. I’m glad I did. 

The Last Quarter of the Moon is set among the Evenki people, reindeer herders of north-eastern China. The narrator is a ninety-year-old woman, who doesn’t reveal her name because she doesn’t want traces of herself to be left behind. Most of her clan are moving permanently to the town, leaving their nomadic lives behind. She remains, telling her story to “the fire and the rain”. 

When the narrator is growing up, it’s clear how much her people’s lifestyle is shaped by the landscape:

But we were unable to leave this river. We always treated it as our centre, living alongside its many tributaries. If the Argun is the palm of a hand, then its tributaries are five open fingers. They extend in different directions, illuminating our lives like flashes of lightning. 

Translation by Bruce Humes

There are vivid descriptions of place throughout Chi’s novel. As a whole, the book is structured around changes in the narrator’s family, set against the broader movement of history and encounters with outside cultures. Throughout, there is the sense of just how precarious is the Evenkis’ traditional culture. The story always comes back to the personal, but Chi makes clear how much is really at stake. 

Published by Vintage Books.

Sylvia Townsend Warner: Mr Fortune’s Maggot & The True Heart

Last year, I read and enjoyed Lolly Willowes (1926), the debut novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Penguin Modern Classics have continued to reissue her novels, so I’ve caught up with the next two. I found them intriguingly different from Lolly Willowes and each other – and, above all, worth reading.

Warner’s second novel was Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927). ‘Maggot’ here means a fad or whimsy, and it’s perhaps a whimsical desire for solitude that leads bank clerk-turned-priest Timothy Fortune, a bank clerk turned priest, to become a missionary on the (fictitious) Polynesian island of Fanua.

After three years, Fortune has not lived up to his name: he has only one convert, a boy named Lueli. Fortune thinks he is getting through to the boy, but Lueli insists on keeping his wooden idol. The time comes for Fortune to take decisive action… and events unfold in a way that challenges his own faith. 

Mr Fortune’s Maggot is focused tightly on these two characters, and in that it makes broader points about faith and colonialism. The change in Fortune’s thinking is carefully drawn, and I found the ending deeply affecting.

***

Warner’s introduction to her third novel, The True Heart (1929), says that it’s a retelling of Cupid and Psyche. This wasn’t really on my mind as I read the book, because it’s not a story I knew much about – but there it is anyway. It must be quite a well disguised retelling, because Warner adds that only her mother made the connection at the time!

In 1873, sixteen-year-old orphan Sukey Bond is sent from London to work as a maid on a farm in the Essex marshes. She falls in love with Eric, whom she mistakes for one of the family. He’s actually the son of the rector of Southend, who has been sent away to the farm because his own family consider him “an idiot”. 

When Sukey’s and Eric’s love is revealed, he is taken back to Southend, and Sukey sets out to find him. There’s a heightened quality to The True Heart that I really appreciated – Sukey even takes her plight to Queen Victoria – as well as a vivid sense of place. 

***

I’ve discovered that this week is Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading Week, hosted by Helen at A Gallimaufry. Head over there for more Warner!

#2021InternationalBooker: The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard

This slim volume (under 100 pages) introduced me to an unfamiliar name from history: Thomas Müntzer, a preacher who became a leading figure in the German Peasants’ War of 1525. He opposed both the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther, and he went from questioning the prevailing theology to encouraging more general revolt against the ruling authorities. 

There’s a real sense in Vuillard’s prose of dynamic and open-ended societal change. For example, I loved this passage describing the effects of the printing press:

Fifty years earlier, a molten substance had flowed from Mainz over the rest of Europe, flowed between the hills of every town, between the letters of every name, in the gutters, between every twist and turn of thought; and every letter, every fragment of an idea, every punctuation mark had found itself cast in a bit of metal. 

Translation from french by mark polizzotti

Vuillard places Müntzer in a line of popular rebels and preachers, including Wat Tyler and Jan Hus. The restlessness of rebellion is reflected in the way Vuillard writes and structures his book (and, of course, Polizzotti’s translation). Ultimately, The War of the Poor may be a little too slight to really shine for me, but it certainly has powerful moments. 

Published by Picador.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

This is the first novel by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It’s partly autobiographical, partly essayistic, often intensely felt. 

In 2012, our narrator is a young mother. Life is full of domestic routines, with repeated phrases in the prose to match. There’s a strong sense of how stifling this can be. When the narrator has to stay in hospital with her newly born child, it becomes downright terrifying – she doesn’t know how this will end, and we feel her fear from the inside. 

Ní Ghríofa’s protagonist is fascinated by the 18th century poem ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. The narrator resolves to uncover everything she can of Ní Chonaill’s life. (The original Gaelic poem and Ní Ghríofa’s translation ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’ appear at the end of the volume.)

Something that really comes across to me in this book is how the act of researching and writing about Ní Chonaill is a means of self-expression and assertion for the narrator. There’s a similar effect in the prose, when passages about Ní Chonaill disrupt the everyday detail. At the same time, the sequences concerning the narrator’s motherhood and domestic life share something with the historical researches: they highlight women’s experiences that might otherwise be treated less seriously than they deserve, if not ignored. 

A Ghost in the Throat is a novel that takes us deeply into its narrator’s viewpoint, where we can experience for ourselves how much Ní Chonaill’s poem means to her.

Published by Tramp Press.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

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