TagPeirene Press

The Last Summer – Ricarda Huch: a snapshot review

This is the first title in Peirene Press‘s ‘East and West’ series; and, unusually for the publisher, it’s a classic – first published in 1910. Ricarda Huch was a pioneering German writer and intellectual, one of the first women to obtain a doctorate from the University of Zurich.

The Last Summer is an epistolary novel set in the early 20th century. Having closed the university due to student unrest, the Governor of St Petersburg receives a death threat. His wife hires him a bodyguard, Lyu. But Lyu is in on a plot to assassinate the Governor.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Jamie Bulloch’s translation creates a real sense of urgency underneath an apparently placid surface. The letters of Lyu and the Governor’s family reveal a complex web of emotion and relationships. But they also bring into question how much one can really know another person. Ultimately, Huch’s characters become trapped by the form of the novel itself. 

This review is adapted from an earlier Twitter thread. 

Book details 

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch (1910), tr. Jamie Bulloch (2017), Peirene Press, 120 pages, paperback (review copy) 

Peirene’s Fairy Tales: The Man I Became

verhelstI got a bit behind with this year’s Peirene Press books, so I thought I’d blog them all in a row. A Belgian novel begins the 2016 series, which has the overall title of 2016 ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’. Whatever you might  anticipate for the start of that series, chances are you’re not expecting the tale of a talking gorilla…

The narrator of Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became used to live in the trees, until he and other members of his family were captured and taken to the ‘New World’. There, they were taught to speak, made to dress like humans, and set to work in a theme park named Dreamland. There’s no proper rationale for all this, nor does there need to be: we’re dealing with a timeless space in which this can happen, and the matter-of-fact tone in David Colmer’s translation sells it completely.

It’s tempting to try to read Verhelst’s novel as an allegory, and there are certainly some scenes that lend themselves to a real-world interpretation, such as the image of gorillas roped together in a forced march across the desert. Ultimately, though, I think The Man I Became has to be taken on its own terms, because it creates its own reality so fully. For me, the key question raised by the book is: what does it mean to be human, exactly? The animals taken to Dreamland are given different D-shaped pins to wear depending on their rank, and “people with two gold Ds pinned to their chests were fully fledged humans.” So, if humanity can be granted with the gift of a badge, what does it really mean?

This is where the ‘end of innocence’ comes in, as Verhelst’s narrator realises the truth about Dreamland, and has to decide what kind of person he wants to be. The Man I Became is an intriguing start to Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, one that left me wondering what would come next. We’ll find out in a few days’ time.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Man I Became (2013) by Peter Verhelst, tr. David Colmer (2016), Peirene Press paperback.

breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

breach blog tour

breach is a new story collection published by Peirene Press on Monday. It’s the first in their Peirene NowI series, original fiction commissions which will engage with current events. For breach, Peirene’s publisher Meike Ziervogel commissioned writers Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to visit the Calais refugee camp known as ‘the Jungle’. There’s been a blog tour all this week, which includes an extract from the book and interviews with the authors; but today there are four reviews across the blogosphere: at Food for Bookworms; The Bookbinder’s Daughter; Bookish Ramblings; and here.

The collection format is a straightforward (though nonetheless effective) way for breach to present the camp as a place of multiple stories running in parallel, of overlapping and intermingling worlds. The stories of individual lives can become derailed: the opening piece, ‘Counting Down’, features a number of refugees on their way to the camp; each adopts their own nickname – who they were no longer matters. One is upset when the others take away the money his brother has sent: “There is a boy like you waiting for me to get him to safety. My son, my real son,” he protests. But only the present matters here; everyone has their own future to aim for, and may not be concerned about someone else’s.

Leaving the camp is also portrayed as a disruption of space and experience. ‘Oranges in the River’ sees a couple of refugees take their chances hiding in refrigerated trucks bound for the UK. As he waits to board a truck, Dlo slips an orange into his pocket, “like a man who isn’t going to climb into a truck full of oranges, like a man who isn’t going to sit surrounded by thousands of oranges for many hours. Like a man who just needs one orange for his thirst.” In other words, there’s no pretending that this is in any way a ‘normal’ experience. When the men are in the truck, there is only the freezer; any imagined destination is no more real than a dream – even if they don’t get caught and have to start again.

We also glimpse outsiders to the camp, though they don’t necessarily understand the world they’re observing. There are volunteers who want to give a hand; but, as the narrator of ‘Extending a Hand’ comments, “you don’t need a hand; you have two of those. What you need is opportunities.” In ‘The Terrier’, Eloise, a French B&B who allows refugees to stay, talks to one of her guests, Omid, about the camp’s nickname:

‘It doesn’t look like a jungle, that camp,’ I said to Omid when he came home, after dark, his coat wet.

‘What does a jungle look like, madame?’

‘Thick with trees and creepers and bushes, with birds and animals.’

‘A jungle,’ he said, ‘is a place for animals only. And that is a jungle, I tell you, madame.’

To Eloise, the Jungle is just a poetic, perhaps even romantic name; to Omid, who knows the lived reality behind the metaphor, it is a different matter. As the story progresses, the gap between Eloise and Omid becomes starker, as she begins to question her latest visitors’ motivations. It’s not until she visits Omid in the camp that she starts to see things differently. But this isn’t a simple story of a Westerner ‘learning better’, more a recognition that all the characters have complex individual lives, whatever their circumstances. This is the kind of perspective that breach is able to open up, and that’s what makes it such a valuable collection.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

breach (2016) by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, Peirene Press paperback

White Hunger and Dorthe Nors

Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger (2012)
Transalted from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (2015)

White Hunger

The theme for Peirene Press’s 2015 books is ‘Chance Encounters’, and chance is particularly brutal their first selection of the year. Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is set in 1867, when Finland was beset by famine, the last naturally caused famine in Europe. In the prologue, we glimpse farming couple Marja and Juhani gathering what meagre food they can, and engaging in mutual masturbation rather than risk bringing another child into these dire circumstances. The next time we meet them, Juhani is starving to death, and Marja and her two children leave their home behind in search of… well, whatever they can find. Their survival is dependent on the goodwill of strangers who are themselves in hardship – and goodwill can only go so far.

Alongside Marja’s family, we meet other characters, this time based in the town – an unnamed senator with plans for a railway; and the doctor Teo, who discusses solutions to the famine with his brother over a game of chess, and exchanges his medical expertise for favours from prostitutes. In many ways, these characters are the inverse of Marja: they are largely shielded from the famine while she is caught up in it; their lives may be geographically contained, but they can see a larger picture; Marja and children move through an expansive landscape, but don’t really know where they are.

I was really struck by how much White Hunger encompasses in such a small space; it feels like the story of a nation in microcosm. The journey of Marja’s family could be the story of many other families across Finland at that time; the Senator and his plans may be seen as representing the inevitable march of the future. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah’s translation underlines the starkness of what is a strong start to Peirene’s year. With Ollikainen’s second novel shortly to be published in Finnish, I hope we see an English translation before too long.

Elsewhere:

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Dorthe Nors, Karate Chop (2008)
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken (2014)

Dorthe Nors, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (2013)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2015)

Nors

Pushkin Press are introducing the Danish writer Dorthe Nors to UK audiences with two books bound head-to-tail in a single volume. It’s a nice idea: not only is it an attractive format, it also shows us more than one side to Nors’s work. The first side is the short story collection Karate Chop; and these are very short, sharp stories indeed – fifteen over the course of eighty pages. Each is a miniature character study, often (perhaps paradoxically) oblique and precise at the same time – oblique in that Nors’s characters tend to be hiding something from themselves or the outside world; precise in the details that nonetheless come to light.

So, for example, in ‘The Buddhist’, we meet a government official who becomes a Buddhist because everyone knows Buddhists are good people; stretches the truth to become president of an aid charity (all in the name of goodness, you understand); and generally twists his own rhetoric in the manner of Joe from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. In ‘Do You Know Jussi?’, a girl waiting for a text from her boyfriend while watching a TV show about families being reunited, anything to avoid admitting that she knows the text isn’t coming. The collection’s harrowing title story depicts a woman who refuses to acknowledge where the blame in her abusive relationship lies (“It was quite unacceptable of him, yet at the same time her not listening to what he told her was suspicious”). Martin Aitken captures in his translation a similar sense of the unspoken as he did with Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland, to similar unsettling effect.

Sharing the bill with Karate Chop is a novella, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. Minna is a composer whose partner, Lars, has broken up with her – and, yes, she’s also lost her rehearsal space. Her search for a replacement is not just about finding a physical space for practising music, but also a mental space for sorting through her life.

The form of this novella is very striking: a list of fairly straightforward declarative sentences, such as:

Minna calls Lars.

Minna calls Lars until he picks up the phone.

Minna and Lars have discussed this before.

Lars has a cousin.

The cousin’s name is Tim.

Tim knows of a rehearsal space in Kastrup.

Quoting like this can give you a sense of the repetition and rhythm, but not the cumulative effect: the unstoppable flow of incantatory sentences that drives Minna forward on her personal journey – whilst also suggesting that a quiet space is going to prove elusive. It’s a superb piece of translation by Misha Hoekstra, the sort that makes me wish I could read Danish, just to experience the music that the original must surely possess. Still, I have the music of the English version to enjoy.

The author bio tells me that Nors has written four novels in addition to these books. Once again, I can only look forward eagerly to being able to read them in future.

Elsewhere:

  • Read Nors’s story ‘The Heron‘ from Karate Chop
  • …or an extract from Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.
  • Interview with Nors at Bookanista.
  • John Self reviews the book for the Guardian.

Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.

Four tales of war

Monsieur le CommandantIn Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur le Commandant (2011; translated from the French by Jesse Browner, 2013), it is 1942 when Paul-Jean Husson – a respected writer and member of l’Académie française – writes to his local SS officer, unable to remain silent any longer. Husson begins his story ten years earlier, when his son introduced him to his new love: a beautiful blonde German girl named Ilse Wolffsohn, whom Husson later discovered to be Jewish. Husson was immediately attracted to Ilse, an attraction that only intensified as the years went by; all the while, he remained a Nazi sympathiser, regularly publishing anti-Semitic articles. But matters would eventually come to a head; and Husson’s letter to the Commandant is the only way forward he can see.

Monsieur le Commandant is an uncompromising book, which confronts the implacability and inherent contradictions of its protagonist’s worldview head-on: Husson is a character who has no qualms about describing graphic violence or venting his hatred, and the results of that are right there on the page. The novel becomes a grim, inexorable march towards a bitterly ironic ending; the weight of history bears down on our reading; but its starkness gives Slocombe’s book a power of its own.

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King of Hearts

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall (2006; translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm, 2013) is a view of 1942 from Warsaw. There are perhaps two things that matter most to Izolda: the love of her husband Shayek, and finding a way out of the Warsaw Ghetto. When Shayek is imprisoned, Izolda’s love for him leads her to do whatever she can to free him; and what she’s prepared to do seems almost without limit – she hides her identity and religion, smuggles goods into the ghetto… Even though she’s captured more than once, she refuses to give up.

In contrast with Monsieur le Commandant’s harsh precision, the tone of Krall’s book is somewhat hazier; told in a series of vignettes, the choppiness of its structure gives the text a dream-like quality, which enhances the sense of the Holocaust as something larger than those caught up in it can truly comprehend. There are moments of horror (made all the more effective by the subdued tone in which they’re written), but a deep sense of love as well. We know from several chapters within the book that Izolda survives into old age, but even then she finds herself dwelling on the past and what might have been. Chasing the King of Hearts is the story of a hard-won personal victory, and the mixed consequences it brings.

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News from BerlinHusson and Izolda could be seen as being at two opposite ends of a continuum of experience of World War Two, a continuum that Oscar Verschuur – the protagonist of Otto de Kat’s News from Berlin (2012; translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke, 2014) – might (at first glance, anyway) appear to be completely outside. Oscar is a Dutch diplomat in Switzerland, well away from the day-to-day realities of the war. That’s until his daughter Emma visits from Berlin, with information from her German husband Carl, a civil servant who covertly opposes the Nazi regime:  an invasion of Russia is planned, codenamed Barbarossa. Now Oscar must decide whether to disclose this information, knowing that to do so may place Emma and Carl in danger.

Relationships, it seems to me, are at the heart of News from Berlin: Oscar’s relationship with his wife Kate is pretty lukewarm and distant (literally so, as she’s currently a nurse in London). Both characters themselves drawn to someone else: he to Lara, a free-spirited Dutch woman he meets in a village hotel; she to Matteous, a wounded Congolese soldier whom she helps to treat. There’s a sense that both of Verschuurs are searching for something in these other people, not that they’re necessarily going to find it (Kate especially comes to realise how it hard it would be for Matteous to adapt to a life in London). Interestingly, Oscar’s new attraction draws him away from the reality of the war, whilst Kate’s draws her towards it; this mirrors their instinctive feelings about the Barbarossa dilemma. As a diplomat, Oscar’s work is fundamentally about relationships on a grand scale; the choice he now has to make brings that work down to the most intimate of levels. Like Slocombe and Krall in their books, de Kat explores the personal effects of war, how individual lives are shaped by conflict.

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Wake

War’s effect on individuals is also the focus of Anna Hope’s debut, Wake (2014), which is set in the aftermath of World War One – specifically in the five days leading up to the parading of the Unknown Warrior through London in 1920. Hope tells of three women: Hettie, a dance instructress who becomes intrigued by a charismatic man she meets at the Hammersmith Palais; Evelyn, who works at the Pensions Office and has a quite a tense relationship with her army-captain brother – but still wants to know why a man comes to her office asking after him; and Ada, a housewife grieving for her son lost in the war, who receives a visit from a boy who appears to know of him.

All three of Hope’s protagonists have seen their lives changed by war: Hettie’s brother is affected by shell-shock, but the world of the dance instructress has opened a new avenue in her own life; Evelyn lost her partner in the war and now finds herself, as an unattached woman nearing 30, outside of social norms; for Ada, it’s not so much a case of needing to find a new path as of coming to terms with the one she has travelled. In Wake, the arrival of the Unknown Warrior is presented as a moment when the British people collectively took stock of the war and its consequences, a recognition of and reflection on the changing times; this is also what Hope does individually for her characters. But there is also the sense that change continues; and, indeed, the women’s stories go on beyond the final page of this vivid novel.

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Links

Monsieur le Commandant
Interview with Romain Slocombe by Gallic Books.
Other reviews: A Life in Books; These Little Words; The Friendly Shelf; Literary Relish.

Chasing the King of Hearts
Interview with Hanna Krall by PEN Atlas.
Other reviews: Andrew Blackman; Sabotage Reviews; A Discount Ticket to Everywhere; Tony’s Reading List.

News from Berlin
Other reviews: 1streading; Lucy Popescu for the Independent.

Wake
BBC interview with Anna Hope (and Judith Allnatt, author of The Moon Field)
Other reviews: For Winter Nights; Book Oxygen; The Unlikely Bookworm; Cleopatra Loves Books.

Event report: the Peirene Experience and Japanese books

I’ve been on the road (well, on the train, really) this week to a couple of bookish events that I’d like to share with you. One was the Peirene Experience, an evening to celebrate the publication of Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson, the latest title from Peirene Press. Though I’ve read all their books, I have never managed to make it along to a Peirene event until now, and I had always wanted to go to one. I went to the second event more on spec, as part of my plan to get more into world literature. It was part of the London Review Bookshop’s World Literature Series, this time focusing on Japan. As you’ll see, I’m very glad to have been to both evenings.

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So, to Belgravia Books on Wednesday, where Peirene Press’s founder and publisher, Meike Ziervogel, hosted as three guests each offered their own take on the book. First up was actor Adam Venus, who gave two readings over the course of the evening. His first was the book’s opening, and it was fascinating to realise just how different this felt from when I had read it silently to myself. Carlson’s text switches back and forth between a third-person narrator and the inner thoughts of various villagers; I’d read this quite steadily, but Venus brought home the dynamism of Carlson’s style. His second reading, from near the end of the novel, focused more on Thomas Davies, the titular gardener who wonders what, if anything, he should believe in. Unlike the other first-person voices, Venus read Thomas’s thoughts in the same measured voice that he used for the narrator, which again placed an interesting contrast on the text that hadn’t struck me so strongly on first reading.

The second performer was violinist Javier Garcia Aranda, who performed his own compositions (a series of sketches, and later a more extended piece) interpreting various extracts from the text. This was almost a musical remix of Carlson’s novel, as Aranda brought the focus in on a few sentences at a time, without necessarily needing reference to their wider context. I’m not particularly musical, so I don’t think there’s a lot I can say about this; but I was impressed at Aranda’s range, and really appreciated being able to see the close connections between text and music.

After the first reading and recital, Emily Jeremiah, one of the translators of Mr Darwin’s Gardener, spoke about some of the challenges of creating an English version from the Finnish original – which must be even greater given how idiosyncratic is this particular book. Jeremiah gave one example of a four-sentence extract In English that had been a single sentence in Finnish, the two languages’ grammars being so different. The other day, I was reading a piece that Stu Allen wrote for the Booktrust website, where he talks about a literary translator being like a musician who ‘plays’ the author’s composition. I think Jeremiah’s talk here showed just how true that is – and, of course, Venus and Aranda showed how something similar can be true for different kinds of performance.

I can’t speak for anyone who hadn’t read Mr Darwin’s Gardener in advance of the event, but I thought this was a superb introduction to Carlson’s novel. The reading and music gave a way in to the novel on an instinctual and emotional level, before Jeremiah turned to more practical matters. But the emphasis was still on personal responses, and this is what I found especially valuable as someone who had already read the book – the opportunity to experience how others saw it. I look forward to more Peirene Press events in the future, and I’d love to see more literary events this creative.

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WLS_GY_LFrom Belgravia Books to the London Review Bookshop, and the latest in their monthly World Literature Series, which took place yesterday. The bookshop’s guest was author and editor Masashi Matsuie, who began the evening with an illustrated talk on Japanese book design. He explained that modern Japanese hardcover books would often come in their own separate box (though this is less common nowadays – the high point for the practice was in the 1960s and ‘70s). They would also have an illustrated page in a different paper stock before the title page. Matsuie showed pictures of some beautiful books – volumes with illustrated endpapers, titles embossed on their spines, illustrations impress into front covers. It was clear to me just how much care and attention had gone into these designs. I think sometimes book design can be undervalued or taken for granted, so it was great to see it being celebrated here.

Translator Michael Emmerich then took to the stage to interview Matsuie, after a reading from Matsuie’s 2012 debut novel, At the Foot of the Volcano (delivered alternately in Japanese by Matsuie and English by Emmerich). The novel (not yet published in English, but I hope it will be) concerns the relationship between an architecture student and the older architect whose work he admires and whose practice he joins. Matsuie said that drew on his own career in publishing to write about his protagonist’s architecture career, and that he  himself had thought of being an architect until he realised he didn’t have the right skills. Emmerich commented that it seemed to him almost as though the spaces were more important than the characters in the novel; and I could certainly imagine that from the extract we heard, which vividly described a church designed by the protagonist’s hero (I especially loved the image of the church looking “like a grey cat curled up in a ball waiting to nap”). Emmerich asked Matsuie if there was a parallel for him between designing books and designing architectural spaces; the author replied that he hadn’t thought of it that way before, but there probably was something to that. This is just one example of what an interesting and illuminating evening this was.

I must mention one more thing. During the Q&A session afterwards, an audience member asked if it were possible to see any of the boxed books, but Matsuie said that unfortunately he hadn’t brought any samples with him. The bookseller holding the roving mic then immediately turned around, pulled a copy of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates from the shelf and handed it to Matsuie, who had never come across the book before and was keen to take a closer look at it. I noticed in passing that The Unfortunates is still on sale with the same design as it had when I first saw a copy in 1999. That’s a testament to good book design, just as the whole incident is a testament to good bookshops. I’d like to thank everyone involved in putting on last night’s event (and, of course, Peirene’s on Wednesday). I thoroughly enjoyed it, learned a lot… and I already have next month’s World Lit Series event in my diary.

Reading round-up: early June

More snapshots of some of the books I’ve read lately:

Patrick Ness, The Crane Wife (2013). Fortysomething George Duncan removes an arrow from the wing of a crane which has mysteriously appeared in his garden… then falls in love with a woman named Kumiko who visits his print shop the next day. But what follows is not so simple as “Kumiko is the crane” – she becomes the missing piece in more than one character’s life, and highlights how others do the same. The Crane Wife is a neat exploration of love and communication; I especially like the subtle ways that Ness alters the style and tone of his dialogue, depending on which characters are in conversation.

Kristina Carlson, Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009; translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, 2013). The latest Peirene Press title centres on Thomas Davies, non-religious gardener to Charles Darwin, who wonders what is left to live for after his wife has died. Carlson’s prose swoops in and out of the minds of various inhabitants of Downe village, examining their faith and slowly revealing their own personal doubts. The lines between faith as a belief and a way of life blur, as do notions of living for this world or the next, in a complex portrait.

Meike Ziervogel, Magda (2013). And here is the first novel by the founder of Peirene Press. It’s a composite of story-chapters, in various voices and styles, about Magda Goebbels, her mother Auguste, and eldest daughter Helga. Ziervogel ddepicts Magda as a girl given the fear of God at convent school; a woman who sees in Hitler what she had been searching for; and a mother preparing to kill her children. She also traces the psychological changes in her characters over the generations, in an interesting piece of work.

Rupert Christiansen, I Know You’re Going to Be Happy (2013). The son of two journalists, Christiansen is himself a newspaper opera and dance critic. In this memoir, he attempts to unpick the story of his parents’ divorce (his father left when Christiansen was a young child; the last time that the author never saw him was at the age of five). Christiansen is frank that this is an act exploration for him as much as one of recollection; but he creates vivid vignettes, whatever he turns to (I particularly appreciated his depiction of the ambivalence of growing up in suburban London). Christiansen’s story is compelling, and his prose a joy to read.

Book notes: Richard Weihe and Robert Jackson Bennett

Richard Weihe, Sea of Ink (2003/12)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

Peirene Press’s Year of the Small Epic has so far brought us a grand domestic drama and a study of bereavement. The series takes a lighter turn in its final instalment, with Swiss writer Richard Weihe’s fictionalised biography of the Chinese painter Bada Shanren. He is born Zhu Da, a scion of the Ming dynasty; but political change and his father’s death lead him to join a monastery and devote his life to art, going through many names before settling on Bada Shanren, ‘man on the mountain of the eight compass points’.

Sea of Ink has eleven illustrations of Bada’s beautiful paintings, and Weihe includes descriptions of how the artist worked, his brush strokes and hand movements. This has the striking effect of creating a detailed impression which remains just that – an impression. Even though we can see the final paintings, there’s room for our subjective interpretation of Weihe’s words. The novella itself works in a similar way, its short chapters acting like brush strokes to create a portrait of Bada’s life which is necessarily a fiction, a construct.

The ultimate story told in Sea of Ink seems to me one of a man finding peace in life through finding (or accepting) his place – finding the world in the marks of ink and brush. The tone of the writing is quiet and reflective; I’d say this is ideal reading for an autumn night.

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Troupe (2012)

Over the last few years, Robert Jackson Bennett has been crafting his own distinctive visions of the American fantastic’s iconic tropes. For his third novel, he turns his attention to the magical travelling show. We meet George Carole, a sixteen-year-old vaudeville pianist as he leaves his current job to visit the troupe of Hieronomo Silenius, whom George believes to be his father. Silenius’s reputation precedes him, but no one ever remembers the details of his show. When George watches a performance, he finds out why: the Silenius troupe plays an extraordinary song that make those who hear it forget what they’ve seen – but it doesn’t work on George.

Falling in with the troupe, George discovers that this music is pat of the ‘First Song’, the one that brought Creation into being; peforming it is the only thing that holds back the ‘wolves’ who would seek to devour reality. Silenius’s band go from place to place in search of fragments of the First Song, which only those of the Silenius blood-line can carry (the song didn’t work on George because he is of that line). So begins a journey into the world’s mythic spaces, with reality itself at stake.

Bennett achieves a nice balance between the personal and cosmic focus. All the members of Silenius’s troupe are pretending to be something they’re not, and the theme of escape runs through the novel – escaping the past, and escaping the inevitable. The ending makes use of a risky technique (I appreciate this is vague, but want to avoid a spoiler), but Bennett pulls it off. His body of work continues to intrigue, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Sunday Story Society: “Two Ways of Leaving” by Alois Hotschnig

Today we have our first story in translation: “Two Ways of Leaving” by Alois Hotschnig (translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis). You can read the story here at Untitled Books; you’ll also find it in Hotschnig’s Peirene Press collection Maybe This Time.

First, I’ll link to some reviews of Maybe This Time (not of all of which touch on this particular story): 1streading; Chasing Bawa; Olivia Heal; Andrew Blackman; Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat; The Worm Hole; The Arts Fuse. I’ll also point out this interview with the translator, Tess Lewis, at Love German Books.

Now, something different. I’m going to post some questions as ‘conversation starters’; feel free to answer them or not (I want them to act as jumping-off points, not to strictly define the discussion), or ask questions of your own. Here we go:

Conversation Starters

There’s no small amount of ambiguity in “Two Ways of Leaving”, so I’d be interested to know how you interpret the relationship between the ‘he’ and ‘she’ of the story.

My abiding thought when I finished Maybe This Time was that Hotschnig’s protagonists were caught up in other people’s stories. Would you agree with that in relation to “Two Ways of Leaving”?

Though it relates to a different piece in Maybe This Time, I was struck by 1streading‘s comment that “Hotschnig is playing with the use of the pronoun ‘he’ as a ‘character’”. What does the author do with the pronoun ‘he’ in this story?

Next time: On 30 Sept, we’ll be talking about the story “Drifting House” by Krys Lee.

For now, though, it’s over to you. What did you make of “Two Ways of Leaving”?

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