The Broken House- Horst Kruger (Bodley Head 2021)

This is the first English translation of a German memoir originally published in 1966 as “Das Zerbrochene Haus” and subtitled “Growing Up Under Hitler”.  In the Afterword the author (who died in 1999) reflects that it was a book which was developed backwards, in a way.  As a journalist in 1964 he was invited to attend the Auschwitz trials.  This forms the closing section of the book and is the most powerful and it was his attendance which caused Kruger to look back on his life.  In the 1960s he was stunned by how perpetrators of unthinkable crimes at the concentration camp had assimilated into society before having to answer for their actions at the trials.  I think if this book had been written more recently this central moment would have been the starting point but back in 1966 Kruger chose to employ a chronological approach which leads from his childhood outside Berlin, in Eichkamp, in an apolitical family where his environment would have made the rise of Adolf Hitler seem even more extraordinary.  Alongside this are the family dramas, the suicide of his oldest sister in 1939 and his own dallying with resistance and its repercussions.

There is a sense of detachment throughout which may feasibly be from the translation but I would imagine it is from the original text which does affect the flow and holds the reader at arm’s length.  There is little of Kruger’s own participation in the hostilities, it jumps to the end of his war, and indeed, this is acknowledged by the author in the Afterword which was written in 1975 and reflects back on the work, but this absence of this part of his life does seem a little odd.

In parts, it is magnificent, especially the second half of the book where Kruger feels to be on more certain ground, the actual growing up under Hitler sections in Eichkamp can feel a little tentative but there admittedly would have been so much that the town’s inhabitants would have been unsure about at the time.  It is not quite the masterpiece I had hoped but the author provides many moments that will linger long in my memory.

The English translation of “The Broken House” is by Shaun Whiteside. The book is published on 17th June 2021. The hardback is published by Bodley Head, the e-book by Vintage Digital. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Don Quixote- Cervantes (Wordsworth Edition 1993) – A Book To “Read Before You Die”

It’s time for my second pick from Peter Boxall’s “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die”.  Last time round, from this chronologically arranged publication I went with “The Golden Ass” dated around 260 AD.  I’m dividing the titles up into groups of five and selecting one to read from these.  The next five choices were:

The Thousand And One Nights

Gargantua and Pantagruel – Rabelais

Euphues: The Anatomy Of Wit – John Lyly

The Unfortunate Traveller – Thomas Nashe

Don Quixote- Cervantes

As with my previous choice I went with the most recent of the bunch but primarily because I had an unread Wordsworth paperback edition on my shelf.  So I set the time machine forward some 355 years from Apuleius for this doorstop of a book which appeared in two parts, the first in 1605, the second 10 years later.

The Wordsworth Edition uses this novel’s third English translation by Peter Motteux which dates from 1712.  Most of us would some idea as to what Don Quixote is about as both he and his squire Sancho Panca have entered our consciousness.  Most would know the “tilting at windmills” episode from early on in the book.  I knew it was a tale of a knight-errant obsessed with tales of chivalry but I had no idea how Cervantes would sustain this for a book of this length, nor did I appreciate just how old this work is, Cervantes was around the same time as Shakespeare, he died just a few days before him and this Spanish classic has proved an intriguing reading experience.

It has taken me a month but I do feel enriched for having read it.  There’s a marked distinction between the two parts, the first was pretty much what I was expecting.  Don Quixote, nothing like the chivalrous heroes of old and suffering from delusions sets out with the verbose Sancho Panca (spelt like this in this edition but the c in his surname is now more commonly a z), Quixote on an old nag he has mentally reinvented into his steed Rozinante and the squire on his beloved donkey Dapple to do deeds of derring do in the name of a peasant woman Quixote has fantasised into his Lady Dulcinea.  They encounter various folk on their way who tend to have fun at their expense with Quixote’s mental wanderings occasionally leading him to make atrocious mistakes.  He believes a dilapidated inn is a castle and is so wrapped up in his image as a chivalrous knight that fact and fiction is blurred.

In the second part this fact vs fiction theme is rounded out nicely.  Cervantes writes as if he is the editor of an Arabic translation of the first part which has become a best seller.  Many of those who meet Quixote from here on in have read about him and his exploits.  A significant part features a Duke and Duchess who have much sport in setting up scenarios for the knight and his squire, bestowing on Sancho Panca a fake governorship of an “island” which was something Quixote has always promised him as a reward for his duties.  Another well rounded dimension is added to the book when Cervantes addresses something which had occurred in the real world when an author stole his characters and published his own “Don Quixote Part 2”.  Cervantes regularly insures his own reputation is intact and employs various methods to attack this author in his text.

All in all this is a very rich, very dense text.  At times it did feel like I was plodding through it but then I would remember the age of the book and the vitality of Cervantes’ tales and it would not be too long before it shifted into a fresh direction.  It’s a comic tale with much more besides and I emerged from my reading of it exhausted but very impressed.

Don Quixote was originally published in two parts in Spanish in 1605 and 1615.  I read the 1712 translation by Peter Motteux.

The Golden Ass – Apuleius (Penguin Classics 1998) – A Book To “Read Before You Die”

Fancying a bit of a literary challenge the other day I took down my copy of “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” by Peter Boxall.  I know this gets updated fairly regularly I have a 2006 edition with “A Clockwork Orange” on the cover.  I thought it might be fun if, occasionally, I worked through some of the titles suggested.  I thought I’d start by seeing what the first five listed books were and discounting any I might have read start by choosing one of this five.  What I’d forgotten is that this book is presented chronologically rather than alphabetically which meant that I was faced with five rather daunting tomes:

Aesop’s Fables

Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Chaireas and Kallirhoe- Chariton

Aithiopika- Heliodorus

The Golden Ass – Apuleius

Not being at all experienced with classic literature I almost gave my plan up at this point but I decided to bite the bullet and downloaded the Penguin Classics edition of “The Golden Ass” which is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety and was written around 260 AD.  This version is helmed by E J Kenney who provides rather a dry introduction which didn’t really set the work in the context I was looking forward to and gets bogged down in technical details but the actual text is lively and nowhere near as difficult to read as I was expecting.

Lucius is fascinated by witchcraft and his meddling in it leads him to be turned into an ass.  Before he can get to the antidote to the spell (roses) he is abducted by a group of thieves and is passed from owner to owner facing all kinds of ill-treatment on the way but hears many stories most of which feature others whose lives have been transformed by Fate and Fortune.  So, there are a lot of stories within stories, a device familiar to anyone who has read much early literature.  It’s probably best described as a picaresque novel.  Mid-way through you get a longer tale, told by an old woman to placate a young girl who has also been abducted by the thieves and this marks the first appearance in English (or it did when it was first published in the 15th Century) of Cupid and Psyche, a tale of the Gods’ interference in the life of mortals where Cupid, on a task from Venus to disrupt the life of a beautiful girl instead becomes her lover.  Many of the other inserted tales are more knockabout, cuckolded husbands, plots of revenge, some which end well and some which do not with the tale reverting back to the plight of the unfortunate donkey.

Much has been made of the last section and the change of tone as Lucius is restored to human form and becomes a devotee of Isis, the Mother Goddess.  This has proven enigmatic to many scholars.  I do have a thing about reading the notes as I go along which did slow me down considerably here but all in all I enjoyed this far more than I was expecting.  A couple of times I even laughed out loud.  I found myself wanting to know more about the context and background of this work.  Apuleius lived in North Africa and travelled widely in Greece and Italy and used Latin to rework Greek texts. (The bulk of this novel is from an earlier work by Lucian Of Patrae).  It did make a great change from chasing recent and forthcoming publications to discover this oldest surviving novel which has certainly stood the test of time.

I read the 1998 Penguin Classics edition of “The Golden Ass”

Pen In Hand- Tim Parks (Alma Books 2019) – A Books About Books Review

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Tim Parks’ latest non-fiction work is very much a companion piece to “Where I’m Reading From” which I read and reviewed last year. Subtitled “Reading, re-reading and other mysteries” it is a collection of articles written either for the New York Review Of Books or the New York Times between 2014 and 2017.

 These articles are linked by a Foreword in which Parks encourages us, in a bid to make us more active readers to always have a pen in hand whilst reading and not to be afraid to annotate and highlight the book and note down our thoughts on what we are reading whilst things are still fresh.  Needless to say, my overwhelming desire to finish a book with it looking as pristine as when I started it means that I could not do this with Parks’ work but I certainly can see where he is coming from.  I don’t think I would ever be able to borrow a book from him as he says; “These days, going back to reading the novels and poetry that have been on my shelves since university days, I see three or four layers of comments, perhaps in different coloured pens.”

What he is getting here is a rich resource on his observations upon the work and how  they might have changed over time.  For those of you like me who would find writing on a book difficult,  the E-Book, where markings can be erased and altered so easily may be the answer.  I do often highlight when reading on my Kindle but do not always go back to those highlights and never provide the running commentary on the text which Parks deems so beneficial.

 Elsewhere he covers a lot of fascinating ground on how to read and what it is to be a reader.  He admits that the same sources do tend to come up as examples and that is probably only to be expected – Primo Levi, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante are amongst those who come under scrutiny and an author I found my interest piqued by – Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has to date passed me by and who in the articles evolves from someone who Parks feels everybody seems to be reading to one who is assumed to be a best-seller by those in the business but whose sales outside his Norwegian homeland do not reflect this.  I found myself considering taking out his “Death In The Family” from the library as a result of Parks’ focus, but then decided to leave it until another time. 

Parks does have a very Euro-centric view having lived much of his adult life in Italy and working as a translator and as in “Where I’m Coming From” I found his views on translated fiction the most fascinating.  In fact, the section on translations which comprises of articles on retranslations of existing translated work, comparing the work of translators on the same text and whether translators should be paid royalties made me wish I had kept up with languages and had been a translator of the written word myself.  A French A-level 30+ years ago would probably not cut it these days- so I think I’ve missed my chance!

 Despite this work being formed from articles I found that it did read well as a whole more cohesively than his 2014 collection.  I found many of Tim Parks’ ideas stimulating and some challenging (but still withheld and temptation to scrawl my objections in the margin as he would have wanted me to do).  What I haven’t done yet, and this is with a shimmer of guilt as I mentioned this last time round is to read any of his novels to see how this feelings about the world of fiction and the needs of the reader has been incorporated into his own work. But I will.

fourstars

 

Pen In Hand was published in hardback by Alma Books in May 2019.  I would very much like to thank the publishers for doing their homework and finding out that I had read and enjoyed Tim Parks in the past and sending me a copy of this to review.

Mama Tandoori – Ernest Van Der Kwast (Scribe 2017)

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Dutch author Ernest Van Der Kwast made his breakthrough with this 2010 Netherlands and Italian best-seller translated now into English by Laura Vroomen.  Publishers Scribe have done a great job in the recent past bringing Dutch authors to wider attention- their 2006 publication of Tommy Wieringa’s “Joe Speedboat” is the current Reviewsrevues Book of The Year and here is another strong title.

“Mama Tandoori” is a study of a family with Dutch and Indian parents.  An autobiographical novel which focuses on Ernest’s mother whose outrageous behaviour verges on the monstrous.  She is a woman determined to get her own way as cheaply as possible.  I was initially quite resilient to Van Der Kwast’s fictional account of his childhood whilst reading of a trip to Lourdes with his disabled brother but the novel really began to draw me in when other adult characters were added to the mix. I found myself fascinated by Uncle Sharma who came from a dirt-poor background and was transported by a visiting outdoor cinema into dreams of becoming a movie star, which came to be realised. From here things all fall into place and I seemed to appreciate more the wider family dynamics.  Mother herself became a more rounded character in my mind when running alongside her competing son on the athletics track and proving to be too nervous to pin on his race number.

There is no doubt that this character can be mean but this meanness does become more appealing in a tragi-comic way.  Her ploy to get a fitted kitchen out of her husband’s dying grandmother is shocking but you cannot help but admire the gall of this character.  The humour is ramped up by the contrast between the narrator’s unemotionally “wooden-hipped” Dutch relatives and the fiery passion and determination of the Indian women.  His mother will both shock you and win you over in laugh-out-loud moments.

Van Der Kwast writes in a likeable, easy style which makes the book feel highly visual and enjoyable.  It has certainly made me keen to read his take on the Italians in his Dolomites-set family saga “The Ice Cream Makers” also published as a Scribe paperback.

fourstars

Mama Tandoori is published on 10th August 2017  by Scribe.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

 

 

The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Picador 2017)

tobacconist

A novel full of poignant moments and a sense of yearning at a time of great change.  Austrian born Seethaler’s novel is quietly impressive.  It begins in 1937 when 17 year old Franz is sent by his mother from their Austrian Lake District home to Vienna to work in a small tobacconist’s shop.

Here Franz begins to learn about life from the merchandise and the shop’s aromas, from the newspapers he reads each day and from the customers.  These include an aging Sigmund Freud with whom Franz strikes up an unlikely friendship.

But the times are a changing and anti-semitism makes a bond with the Jewish Freud increasingly difficult and the one-legged tobacconist who Franz works for seems a threat to the authorities.  Franz, initially bewildered by the mysteries of love and an obsession for a worldly Bohemian girl finds he has more difficult things to contemplate.

The very likeable Franz is the heart of this novel.  Everything is underplayed, there are few big dramatic scenes yet the drama and turmoil of the times is palpable.  It is clear that for the people in Franz’ circle things can never be the same again.

I like novels where young characters attempt to make sense of the adult world and in Franz’s Vienna there is little that makes sense.  His retreats to analysing his dreams is both as a result of his meetings with Freud and an attempt to fathom out his existence where neither the real nor dream world seem quite right.

Robert Seethaler has written five novels.  His last “The Whole Life” was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.  This, translated by Charlotte Collins, with its quiet tenderness may slip under the awards radar but it is of lasting appeal.

fourstars

The Tobacconist was published by Picador in 2017.

Waking Lions- Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Pushkin Press 2016)

ayelet

This is Israeli author Gundar-Goshen’s second novel translated from its original Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.  Her first  “One Night, Markovitch” (2012) was also published by Pushkin Press and won awards in her homeland.  “The Waking Lions” is a philosophical work which deals with deep moral issues yet also works well as a thriller.

Main character Eitan Green is a neurosurgeon whose life transforms one night when he hits an Eritrean immigrant with his SUV and decides to leave him for dead.  His wallet is discovered at the scene by the dead man’s wife and in order to make amends and save himself from professional ruin and prison Eitan is coerced into treating illegal immigrants at night in a disused garage.  The potential plot-worthiness of this is cranked up a notch as Eitan’s wife, Liat, is a policewoman involved in investigating the hit and run case.

Eitan is dragged into a situation he cannot get out of and becomes obsessed with the dead man’s wife, Sirkit, who is very much in control of his fate.  Much is made of how one moment can change lives and how changes of behaviour stem from one decision.  Liat knows her marriage is falling apart but cannot link it to a dead road accident victim.  There’s guilt, atonement and much analysis yet the predicament Eitan finds himself in also lends itself to some gripping writing.  The moral significance of the story transcends its Israeli setting and really could work located anywhere.  Admittedly, there were times when the philosophising and navel-gazing of the main characters (the author has a Masters degree in psychology) slowed things down unduly but then a twist of the knife was never that far away to make Eitan’s problems even more complex.

I found it enjoyable and thought-provoking.  It would seem to be a good choice for reading groups who might not find themselves all warming to the characters but it would certainly provide fruitful discussion of the issues raised.

threestars

Waking Lions was published by Pushkin Press in  March 2016  .  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the review copy.

A Beautiful Young Wife – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016)

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Scribe have done a great job this year in bringing the work of Dutch author Wieringa to an English speaking audience with translations of his back catalogue by Sam Garrett.  This is the British publication of his 2014 novella “Een Mooie Jonge Vrouvo”

This is the fourth of Wieringa’s novels I have read, enough evidence to strongly suggest that he is an important contemporary European writer with great depth and range in his published works.  One of his novels republished by Scribe in 2016 “Joe Speedboat” became my reviewsrevues Book Of The Year. In “A Beautiful Young Wife” he exquisitely examines a relationship between a couple with a 14 year age gap.  Edward has buried himself in his career as a microbiologist and has missed out on romance until the day he encounters Ruth cycling past the cafe he is in.  The couple meet, fall in love, get married and plan a family.  Edward finds himself having to face up to commitment, fatherhood, respecting another’s values and beliefs with varying success.

I found the whole thing compelling and beautifully written.  There is an explicitness and openness that I hadn’t really picked up on the previous novels.  This might actually upset a few readers but in the context of the relationships he depicts it is powerful and vibrant.  No Bad Sex Award for Mr Wieringa, I’d hope.

Behind this tale of getting on with another is a study of pain.  Ruth, a vegetarian, believes Edward causes pain in animals used as part of his research.  Edward moves towards her point of view as they begin to increasingly inflict pain upon one another.  This study of a relationship is raw and sparse as well as poetic and thought-provoking and is my second favourite of the four books I have read by this highly talented Dutch author.

fourstars

A Beautiful Young Wife was published by Scribe in  August 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

Little Caesar – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016)

Day 45 from the date I was told I would have internet access and I have it!! Hallelujah!  It’s a Christmas miracle – not even an apology from BT so far.  Anyway, I’m feeling jubilant, I’ve just been to the panto (“Cinderella” at Shanklin Theatre) and to celebrate here’s a review of a second good book by Tommy Wieringa that I have read this year……….

wieringa2

Scribe continue their English publications of Dutch author Wieringa’s works with this translation (by Sam Garrett) of his 2007 novel “Caesarion”.  This is the third of his books I have read to date and although it is not quite up there with “Joe Speedboat” it is a fascinating read.  Elizabeth Strout and Deborah Levy have both published highly acclaimed studies of the daughter mother relationship this year but Wieringa here focuses on mother and son.  This relationship is the most dynamic aspect of this novel.

Ludwig Unger returns to Suffolk for a funeral.  He and his mother had settled there some years ago until their cliff-top house collapsed into the sea.  His mother has recently died and all this revisiting of the past sees Ludwig recalling events.  Ludwig is an odd combination of talented pianist and rugby player and is not that sympathetic a character.  His mother lives her life without responsibility or even being able to account for her actions.  His frustration towards her is palpable throughout and totally understandable.  His father, who left when Ludwig was very young is even more morally dubious, an artist who specialises in demolishing natural environments in the name of art.

Wieringa writes beautifully and this is an unpredictable read and I was drawn into this young man’s search for support.  There is throughout a coolness and detachment which was reminiscent of the author’s “These Are The Names” yet in its strength of characterisation it feels closer to “Joe Speedboat”, but the warmth and humour of that novel is replaced with a degree of impassivity with the character’s dealings with one another.  Both this and “Joe Speedboat” can be seen as coming of age novels but the latter faces adulthood with energy and vivacity whilst Ludwig has been aged by parent/child role reversal and faces this part of his life with a wandering listlessness.  Both are valid responses, given their circumstances, but I must confess I found it more rewarding to spend time in Joe’s company.

fourstars

Little Caesar is published by Scribe in the UK in January 2016.  Many thanks to Scribe for the review copy.

Umami – Laia Jufresa (Oneworld 2016)

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Is “taste” one of the publishing trends of 2016?  Oneworld Publications seem to think so as hot on the heels of “Sweetbitter” by Stephanie Danler comes “Umami”.  This is the fifth of our taste sensations first recognised by the Japanese.  It is variously described within the book but consider “that flavour that floods your taste buds without you being quite able to put your finger on it”.  In Eastern cuisine it can be sometimes attributed to Monosodium Glutamate, in English it translates to a “richness” – for those of us who like it Marmite represents “Umami”.

One of the characters in Mexican author’s Jufresa’s novel, anthropologist Alfonso Semitel is very keen on “Umami”, has written a book about the subject and developed a housing complex laid out like the map of the tongue, naming his rental accommodation “Sweet”, “Sour”, “Bitter”, “Salty” and “Umami” (where he lives).  This is the tale of these residents.

The story has five narrative strands which jump around between 2000 to 2004.  I know by telling you this I have already put off some potential readers.  In 2004 we meet Ana, in a first-person narrative.  She is developing a “milpa” (a system of planting of corn, beans and squash) in her yard.  Alfonso calls her “Agatha Christie” because of her consumption of the British author’s crime novels.  Ana lives in “Salty” with her family, mourning a deceased younger sister.

In 2003 we meet Marina, an artist and resident of “Bitter”.  This is a third-person narrative.  In 2002 it’s Alf himself, adapting to live without his cardiologist wife with a first person narrative.  2001 it’s Luz, the tragic sister of Ana and in 2000 it is back to the third-person narrative for Pina, the girls’ friend who lives with her father in “Sour”.

I found these changes of narrative style and time zones initially quite difficult to come to grips with, and also a little unnecessary. Throw in the unfamiliarity with Mexican culture and I wasn’t sure I was going to last the distance, but I did, and at times this novel really did draw me in.  It is divided into four sections and then again into the five year groups which move back in time making it seem disjointed.  I just cannot see why this structure has been adopted because the story is involving enough and the writing certainly impressive enough without it.  I want to be immersed in a book not held back by a complex retrograde structure.  It’s hard not to keep leafing back through the book until the characters begin to really make an impression (for me around the third section).  As far as I am concerned this is the fault in a book which could have been up there with my favourite reads so far this year.  I got to like the characters and the plot moves in some way towards the demise of Luz but I think there needs to be a reason for structuring the book as it is and I’m still not sure what it is.

threestars

Umami is published in July 2016 by Oneworld Publications