Taghistorical fiction

The Measure of a Man – Marco Malvaldi: a European Literature Network review

On the table today, an Italian novel: The Measure of a Man by Marco Malvaldi (translated by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor). If you like the idea of a Renaissance murder mystery featuring Leonardo da Vinci, with added political intrigue and a few sly nods at the present day… you’ll want this book in your life.

Click here to read my review of The Measure of a Man for European Literature Network.

Book details

The Measure of a Man (2018) by Marco Malvaldi, tr. Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor (2019), Europa Editions, 272 pages, paperback.

What I’ve been reading lately: 29 July 2019

Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’ The Sun on My Head (tr. Julia Sanches, pub. Faber and Faber) is a collection of stories set in the favelas of Rio. We meet a cast of characters doing what they can to get by and (where possible) move on in life. For example, the protagonist of ‘Russian Roulette’ sneaks his security-guard father’s gun into school in the hope of impressing the other boys – but the real uncertainty is how his father will react when he finds out. ‘The Tag’ tells of a xarpi tagger wishing to leave his old life behind after the birth of his son, though he finds that its attractions are not so easy to shake off. Martins’ eye is sharp, and his prose (in Sanches’ translation) evocative.

The debut novel by American writer Elle Nash, Animals Eat Each Other (pub. 404 Ink) is a short, dark, uncomfortable piece of work. In Colorado, an unnamed young woman enters a relationship with a couple, Matt and Frances. The protagonist’s life is disintegrating around her, in terms of how she looks after herself (or doesn’t) and relates to others, but this new liaison hardly brings much in the way of stability. Nash’s novel is jagged and spare, giving the impression of a narrator trapped in a life from which she struggles to break free or move forward.

Next, a couple of historical novels from New Zealand. This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (pub. Gallic Books) concerns Albert Black, a young man from Belfast who, in 1955, became the second-to-last person to be executed for murder in New Zealand. Black stabbed another young man during a fight at a cafe, and the novel depicts his trial at a time of rising moral panic about teenagers. Kidman is firmly of the view that Black should have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder, though her book takes a nuanced approach in exploring the ramifications of the trial. It’s vividly written, too.

Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers (pub. Melville House UK) begins at the turn of the 20th century, when a department store window-dresser named Colton Kemp witnesses the remarkably lifelike mannequins of a rival store, made by a mysterious mute individual known as the Carpenter. Kemp goes to extraordinary lengths to try to go one better than his opponent, with the consequences still being felt years being years later. I’m being evasive because part of the fun of Cliff’s novel lies in experiencing its turns first-hand. The book asks what it means to lose ownership of your own life – and what happens when you get it back.

What I’ve been reading lately: a Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month special

First up, a novel from Colombia. The Children by Carolina Sanín (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. MacLehose Press) is the tale of Laura, who creates a slippery fiction of her life as a form of protection, for example by giving a different answer whenever someone asks what her dog is called. One night, six-year-old Fidel turns up outside her house, a boy with no apparent history. She takes him in for the night, then to child welfare services the next day – but, before long, she finds herself wanting to know what has happened to him. This is a strange and elusive story, where reality may be reconfigured even as we look at it.

Originally published in Portuguese in 1995, The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá (tr. Jethro Soutar, pub. Dedalus) is the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It begins with teenage Ndani becoming a housekeeper for a white family, then circles around her life and others’, including a village chief with ambitions to stand up to the local Portuguese administrator, and the black schoolteacher whom Ndani falls in love with. Silá’s principal characters each step into white society in various ways; the author examines the implications for them of doing so, and how colonial attitudes could be challenged and perpetuated at the same time. The prose is a joy to read.

Umami by Laia Jufresa (tr. Sophie Hughes, pub. Oneworld) is set in a Mexico City mews of five houses, each named after one of the basic tastes. It begins in 2004, three years after her sister drowned, even though she could swim. Five narrative strands unfold in turn, each from a different viewpoint, told in a different voice, and set a year before the previous one. That structure sets up a rhythm which keeps the pages turning. Gradually, the secrets of the mews’s residents are revealed, with an ever-growing sense of being drawn into the implacable past.

Who Among Us? was the first novel (originally published in 1953) by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, but it’s the third to appear in English translation (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. Penguin Modern Classics). Miguel, Alicia and Lucas have known each other since school. Miguel and Alicia married each other, but Miguel has come to realise that Alicia prefers Lucas. So much so, in fact, that Miguel persuades Alicia to travel to Buenos Aires, where she can meet Lucas again. The tale of this love triangle is narrated by each character in turn, and in a different form: a journal written by Miguel, a letter from Alicia to him, a short story by Lucas (with footnotes outlining where he has adapted reality). The characters’ different perceptions emerge as the book progresses, and maybe there’s even an objective truth in there… or maybe not.

What I’ve been reading lately: 12 June 2019

My book group chose Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate) to read for May. It’s an account of the author’s return from London to her native Orkney after ten years of struggling with alcoholism. I’ve heard of praise for The Outrun in the years since it was published, and was glad to have an excuse to read it. Overall, I enjoyed it: in particular, I felt that Liptrot struck a fine balance between life before and after the return to Orkney (her recovery is ongoing throughout the book). It combines aspects of nature writing and memoir of illness into a work very much its own.

At this time, I was in the middle of three books for review elsewhere; I felt the need for something else, to decompress. I’d been interested in Ash Before Oak (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Jeremy Cooper since I first heard about it. It takes the form of a nature diary written by a man who has moved to Somerset, to start a new life in the country. But he also has mental health problems, something that emerges gradually within the text. We gain glimpses of his breakdown and recovery as the novel goes on. The structure of Ash Before Oak – very short chapters that progress serenely rather than choppily – provided the ideal contrast to my more concentrated review reading. I could just let Cooper’s novel open up in my mind as it would – it’s affecting stuff.

Termin by Henrik Nor-Hansen (tr. Matt Bagguley) is a particularly short, particularly sharp Norwegian novel from Nordisk Books. It tells the story of Kjetil Tuestad, who is severely assaulted in 1998. Over the following years, Kjetil struggles to deal with the psychological repercussions of this; his relationship falls apart, and there’s economic hardship in the background. What makes Termin especially powerful is that it’s written in the detached tone of a police report, and even the most innocuous or intimate event is treated with cold scepticism (“They supposedly gave each other a hug”). This technique drains all the warmth out of what happens, suggesting a loss of empathy in Kjetil’s life and more broadly across society.

The theme for this year’s Peirene Press titles is “There Be Monsters”. The first one comes from Finland: Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (tr. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah). It’s written as a recovered expedition diary from the 1820s; Iax Agolasky is research assistant on an expedition to north-west Russia. The party comes across a group of creatures that resemble human children with certain animal features. Differences of opinion arise over what this discovery might mean and what should be done. Children of the Cave explores what it means to be human, as both Agolasky (whose instinct is to protect the children) and those with other ideas start to seem more animalistic. I found this a thought-provoking piece of work.

Celestial Bodies – Jokha Alharthi: #MBI2019

Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies (2010)
Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth (2018)

Today’s book from the Man Booker International Prize longlist is the first I’ve read from Oman. It’s the second novel by Jokha Alharthi, a tale of two families and social change across several generations. At its centre are three sisters, each of whom takes a different approach to love and marriage. Mayya marries a merchant’s son at her parents’ instruction, though she has an unrequited love for another man (she names her first daughter London, after the city where the man of her dreams studied). Asma loves literature and feels sure that marriage and motherhood will be wonderful, though this is not necessarily reflected in what she reads:

Why wasn’t there even one book, among all of the volumes on her shelves, which singled out motherhood as the radiant experience it must be? Had her grandfather, Shaykh Masoud, whose library her mother had inherited, not been interested in motherhood? Or were books in general reticent on this subject? She didn’t know the answer to that one, since she had never seen another library in her life.

The third sister, Khawla, has waited since childhood to marry her cousin, and still waits for him, though he has now emigrated to Canada, and she waits for him to return. All three women have their individual ideals when it comes to love; Celestial Bodies explores the different ways in which reality measures up (or fails to measure up) to those ideals.

Alongside the three sisters’ tales are episodes from the lives of other characters, which reflect different experiences and common themes across the generations. Mostly the chapters are presented out of chronological order, which turns Alharthi’s novel into a forest of stories.

Book details

Celestial Bodies (2010) by Jokha Alharthi, tr. Marilyn Booth (2018), Sandstone Press, 244 pages, paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

Reading round-up: late January

Susan Orlean, The Library Book (2018)

In 1986, someone set fire to Los Angeles Central Library, which ultimately led to the destruction of 400,000 volumes. Susan Orlean’s latest book takes this event as its starting point, exploring the past and present of LA’s main library, the investigation into the fire, a more general history of libraries, and the place of libraries in Orlean’s own life. It’s an interesting and varied journey, which introduces us to some colourful characters.

Nihad Sirees, States of Passion (1998)
Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss (2018)

The second novel by Syrian writer Nihad Sirees to appear in English begins with an unnamed bureaucrat seeking shelter from a storm in a country mansion. The old man living there tells the narrator the story of a young peasant woman sent to Aleppo in the 1930s, and the glamorous wedding singer who was once her mother’s lover. States of Passion becomes a nest of stories as the narrator interjects, curious to know how the old man fits into all this. Sirees’ novel examines love, memory, and what it means to live in a story.

Magda Szabó, Katalin Street (1969)
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix (2019)

This is my first time reading Magda Szabó (1917-2007), in a translation newly published by MacLehose Press. Katalin Street focuses on three families in adjacent houses in Budapest, returning to them at intervals between 1934 and 1968. This encompasses both the German invasion of Hungary in 1944, and the subsequent period of Soviet rule. Szabó’s focus is very much on her characters, showing how their lives and relationships are shaped by the events around them. It’s a subtle, reflective work.

Catherine Chidgey, The Beat of the Pendulum (2017)

Subtitled “a found novel”, The Beat of the Pendulum is built from real-life conversations, emails, radio ads.. . all things that Catherine Chidgey heard and read around her over the course of a year. Being plunged into this cacophony of voices is disorienting yet intriguing, and brings home just how many odd edges a typical novel shaves off reality – odd edges which are still there in Chidgey’s novel. One of the key themes is communication: Chidgey’s relationships with her baby daughter (born through surrogacy) and mother (who has dementia) show communication becoming closer and more distant at different times.

Ricky Monahan Brown, Stroke (2019)

Ricky Monahan Brown is a Scot who was living in New York in 2012, when he had a stroke at the age of 38. As his memoir’s subtitle says, he had “a 5% chance of survival” – but survive he did. Brown’s account is fascinating for the detail of his painstaking recovery, but what also comes across is the strength and importance of his relationships, especially that with his girlfriend Beth. There’s also a thread of dry humour, which rounds out the book nicely.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants – Mathias Enard

In Charlotte Mandell’s latest translation of his work, Mathias Enard takes us to 1506, when a 31-year-old Michelangelo arrives in Constantinople, having been invited by Sultan Bayezid II to design a bridge. The Constantinople that Michangelo visits is a confluence of cultures: “the Empire was no longer Roman and not really the Empire; the city swayed between Ottomans, Greeks, Jews and Latins”.

Enard’s novel is full of meeting-points: the bridge itself as a symbol, but also the drawing out of conflicting parts of Michelangelo’character (the frugal man who holds back versus the side of him that’s happy to embrace his new experiences), for example. There’s also a triangle (maybe a wedge) of relationships: Michelangelo is guided through Constantinople by a poet named Meishi, who comes to fall in love with the artist. But Michelangelo only has eyes for an Andalusia singer.

Unlike the other books of Enard’s that I’ve read (Zone and Compass), Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is short and comprised mostly of brief chapters; this lends the novel a feeling of space and lightness, which in turn feeds into the sense that Enard’s tale hangs over something darker. It appears in reality that Michelangelo did not accept the Sultan’s invitation, but Enard has used historical fragments to imagine that he might have, and there are occasional asides which draw attention to the artifice. At the beginning: “No one knows the name of the Greek dragoman waiting for [Michelangelo], so we’ll call him Manuel”. Later: “Of course, Michelangelo is not now thinking of these frescoes, which he will bring into being three years from now, and which will earn him even more measureless glory; right now, he just has a bridge in mind…”

So, Enard’s novel ends up poised between past and future, and the effect of these asides is precisely to pull the reader out, remind us that what we’re reading is a tissue of words, a bright curtain over the reality where this (probably) never happened. This is also what the novel’s title points to: it’s taken from Kipling, but is spoken by the Andalusian singer in one of the chapters where she addresses Michelangelo as she shares his bed:

You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings, elephants and marvellous beings; by speaking to them about the happiness they will find beyond death…Tell them about all of that, and they will love you: they will make you the equal of a god. But you will know, since you are here pressed against me, you ill-smelling Frank whom chance has brought to my hands, you will know that this is nothing but a perfumed veil hiding the eternal suffering of night.

In other words, fabulous stories function as seductive distractions from cold reality; they would fall apart like a collapsing bridge if placed under enough strain. This is what gives Tell Them an thread of sharpness which emerges from the book’s airy surfaces without warning

Book details

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants (2010) by Mathias Enard, tr. from the French by Charlotte Mandell (2018), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 144 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Reading round-up: early January

Happy New Year! For my first post of 2019, here are some of the books I read towards the end of last year, including a few new titles:

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018)

This is the short, sharp debut novel by Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. Our narrator, Korede, is a nurse; her sister Ayoola’s boyfriends have a tendency to end up dead, and Korede helps her clean up afterwards. But, when Ayoola starts going out with a doctor whom her sister secretly loves, Korede has to make a choice… Both writing and viewpoint in Braithwaite’s novel are intensely focused, which throws the reader head-first into its situation. To my mind, My Sister, the Serial Killer is at heart a novel of character, and a compelling one at that.

Evald Flisar, A Swarm of Dust (2017)
Translated from the Slovene by David Limon (2018)

Janek Hudorovec grows up in a Roma family in 1960s Yugoslavia. In the first scene of Evald Flisar’s novel, we discover the dark secret that Janek will carry with him through life. Janek finds social conventions and niceties stifling; though he may think he’s escaping the strictures of village life when he gets the chance to go to university, he realises that he needs the freedom of nature, even though returning to the village means confronting his past. Flisar evokes Janek’s inner life so fully that A Swarm of Dust can be deeply harrowing to be read – but it’s powerful stuff.

Charlotte Runcie, Salt on Your Tongue (2019)

Charlotte Runcie is an arts journalist for the Telegraph; Salt on Your Tongue is her first book. It’s a memoir of pregnancy and motherhood, combined with an exploration of what the sea has meant to women through history. Runcie draws on art, music and mythology, relating these to her own experience and love of the sea, and vice versa. The resulting book is absorbing and intensely personal.

Dalia Grinkevičiutė, Shadows on the Tundra (1997)
Translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas (2018)

Dalia Grinkevičiutė was a teenager in 1941 when she and her family were deported to a Siberian Gulag. Seven years later, she escaped and returned to Lithuania, where she wrote down the memories that would become Shadows on the Tundra. She buried the papers in a jar in her garden; they were not found until 1991, after her death. Shadows on the Tundra now appears in English as part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series. It’s a harrowing account of life in the prison camp, with Delija Valiukenas’ translation really capturing a rawness to Grinkevičiutė’s writing.

Dov Alfon, A Long Night in Paris (2016)
Translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir (2019)

A marketing manager from Israel disembarks at Charles de Gaulle Airport with five colleagues. He approaches a pretty blonde hotel greeter outside, ready for a spot of flirting… only to be abducted instead. This sparks an investigation that will involve Israeli intelligence officers at home and in Paris, as well as the local French police. The first novel by journalist Dov Alfon is a sprawling thriller that keeps up a frenetic pace, with plenty of swerves in the plot.

A Long Night in Paris will be published on 10 January; the other books are available now.

A mid-December round-up of recent reading

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

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

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

Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)

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

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

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

Edward Carey, Little (2018)

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

Abi Silver, The Pinocchio Brief (2017)

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

Bird Cottage – Eva Meijer: a EuroLitNetwork review

It has been a while, but I’m pleased to be back at the European Literature Network for this month’s #RivetingReviews section. The book I’m reviewing is Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer (translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett). It’s a novel about the life of a historical figure who was unknown to me: Gwendolen (Len) Howard, a concert violinist who, aged 40,changed her life and moved to a Sussex cottage to study the birds in her garden. She published two books, and her ideas were ahead of her time, but her work was not taken seriously by the scientific establishment.

Bird Cottage is a fascinating story; click here to read my review in full.

Book details

Bird Cottage (2016) by Eva Meijer, tr. Antoinette Fawcett (2018), Pushkin Press, 256 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

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