“No man is an island.” (John Donne)

I live on a tiny grey island. This year Spring has been even greyer than usual and it felt like winter had gone on for eleventy million years. Now the weather is overcompensating by being unseasonably warm for a few days (just in time for the London marathon – kudos to those hardy runners), and so I’ve decided to celebrate by looking at two novels set on warm islands. They are two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit, and I’m sure by the time I’ve posted this my home will be back to service-as-usual grey and we’ll all know where we stand.

Firstly, Salt by Earl Lovelace (1996), set in Trinidad where Lovelace was born and still lives. I read The Dragon Can’t Dance years ago and really liked it, but for some reason I hadn’t picked up a Lovelace since. Salt is primarily the story of Alford George, but it is also a story about Trinidad.

“Maybe that madness seized Columbus and the first set of conquerors when they land here and wanted the Carib people to believe that they was gods; but, afterwards. After they settle in the island and decide that, yes, is here we are going to live now, they begin to discover how hard it was to be gods.

The heat, the diseases, the weight of the armour they had to carry in the hot sun, the imperial poses they had to strike, the powdered wigs to wear, the churches to build, the heathen to baptise, the illiterates to educate, the animals to tame, the numerous species of plants to name, history to write, flags to plant, parades to make, the militia to assemble, letters to write home. And all around them, this rousing greenness bursting in the wet season and another quieter shade perspiring in the dry.”

Alford dreams of leaving the island and decides the way to do this is to speak ‘English’. Lovelace shows the legacy of colonialism and how the language of the colonisers is still associated with power and accomplishment.

“His thinking was in another language and he had to translate. He began to speak more and more slowly to make sure that his verbs agreed with his subjects, to cull out words of unsure origin and replace them with ones more familiarly English. Caribbean words like jook, mamaguy and obzocky all had to be substituted. He felt his meanings slipping away as he surrendered his vocabulary.”

However, as time goes on, Alford stays on the island, becomes a teacher, fights for his students rights and becomes embroiled in politics. His identity becomes more bound with contemporary Trinidad, and it’s then that he realises that emancipation has been a false promise:

“manoeuvre them into accepting not freedom but the promise of being set at liberty, with no more attention given to their years if degradation and captivity and abuse than if they had been dogs”

There is a plethora of other characters in Salt and I can barely scratch the surface here. They are drawn vividly and with affection, a cacophony of voices that pick up Lovelace’s themes of identity, home and meaning. They exist within a beautifully evoked Trinidad whereby Lovelace is able to explore his weighty themes without becoming overly didactic.

This post is ridiculously long and I don’t have time to explore Salt properly, but I did just want to mention this beautiful portrait of the elderly Miss May:

“And with the laborious delicacy choreographed by her pains eased herself down unto the step where the sun was brightest and rested there, her eyes shut, her breath inhaled, the metronome of her mind keeping time to the rhythm of her distress, trying to find within the music of her pain a space in which to breathe.”

I think that’s a stunning piece of writing. Lovelace writes with clarity and a unique voice, and he has important things to say:

“The tragedy of our time is to have lost the ability to feel loss, the inability of power to rise to its responsibility for human decency.”

Secondly, By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (2008, trans. Jethro Soutar 2014) who is from Equatorial Guinea, and whose parents are from Annobon Island. The island in the novel is unnamed but shares a location and a history of Spanish colonialism with Annobon.

“We were on our own out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. People had given up hope of the boat ever coming back – the boat from the place where our fathers were.”

The narrator recounts his experience of childhood on the island. He lives with his silent, remote grandfather.

“I can’t say for sure whether my grandfather was or wasn’t mad. I saw him through a child’s eyes and through such eyes it’s impossible to tell whether an adult man, who lives in your house and who you’ve been told is your grandfather, is mad or not.”

“The house was close to the beach. And not any old beach either but the big village beach. Yet despite being so close to the shore, grandfather had built the house with its back to the sea…everything faced the mountain.”

Women on the island own the land, while the men undertake the fishing. Things are not easy on the island – there is poverty at times, white people arrive and trade sex with women for cigarettes and kerosene – but things deteriorate significantly during the period the narrator is recalling. There is a bush fire, then cholera wipes out a huge proportion of the population, and there is a horribly violent instance of scapegoating.

 “Today, looking back, I see, or understand, that the incident and the cholera were part of the same sickness. And the cure for that sickness was beyond the reach of our adults for it was a sickness that was greater than them, and so it was able to dominate them. And on that island out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, nasty episodes unfortunately had to be explained somehow; something to satisfy people’s need for a cause.”

The island may be out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and the faith of the people may be a mix of their traditional beliefs and Catholicism, but I think what the narrator is speaking about is far from remote:

“For I know now that all people are not treated equally when it comes to apportioning blame for bad things that happen in communities. I know that, in this world of ours, how facts are judged depends on who’s doing the judging.”

I’m making this novel sound depressing, and it isn’t. The point of view of a child enables the story to be told but with a degree of distance that enables the reader to keep reading. This is not to suggest that Laurel obfuscates or pulls his punches. The brutal scapegoating is repeatedly returned to and described in detail. It is horrific. The repetitions of the story enable it to effectively capture the sense of reminiscences, and also how defining moments are those we return to time and again, informing our understanding of the past and who we are.

Towards the end we learn how this story is embedded within colonialism, and how what we are reading exists within this history. The narrator learned Spanish at school, a language that existed detached from meaning for him:

“We learned everything by heart, and I think that’s why we did it singing. In fact, although we sometimes saw books with the letters and pictures, I didn’t know that amapola, burro, cochino and dado were Spanish words for poppy, donkey, hog and dice, or that poppy, donkey, hog and dice were things we were supposed to have heard of. I didn’t know what any of them were, so I didn’t know the words were supposed to represent the letters and I didn’t associate the letters with the pictures in the books.”

As a result of this, he is able to tell his story to Spanish-speaking researchers who have come to the island:

“If this story becomes known, it will be because of some white people.”

Laurel writes with unrelenting power in beautiful prose about huge issues: society, colonialism, legacy, blame, belief. His writing is stunning and his anger palpable without overwhelming the narrative. Another great edition from And Other Stories, who are rapidly becoming one of my favourite publishers.

To end, following on from a post a few weeks back that led to Victoria, Lucy and I sharing our love of Dolly Parton, here is the legend herself singing about islands:

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“Love does not dominate, it cultivates. And that is more.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

I’m managing to squeeze in one final post for German Literature month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.  Hopefully next year I’ll be better organised and able to participate some more, but for now I’m off to Austria, which is also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Do join in with GLM next year or AW80Books, they’re great ways to read some wonderful books 😊

Firstly, The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (trans. Joel Rotenberg 2008) which was found amongst his papers after he killed himself in 1942. This is a melancholy tale of the impact of war on individuals, in this instance the First World War. Christine is a titular provincial civil servant, who finds herself in her late twenties having only known penny-pinching and drudgery.

“The war stole her decade of youth. She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness.”

Christine is plucked out of her ordinary life by her aunt who is visiting the Swiss Alps. She invites Christine to stay and the naïve woman is enraptured by the whirlwind of new clothes, fine dining and bright young things of which she is suddenly in the midst.

 “All the world’s sweetness might be in this one thin straw of scalding ice. Heart thumping, fingers trembling avidly, she looks about for someone or something to receive her overflowing gratitude.”

Christine is transformed from a drudge into a beautiful young woman that people want to be with.

“In this instant, shaken to her very depths, this ecstatic human being has a first inkling that the soul is made of stuff so mysteriously elastic that a single event can make it big enough to contain the infinite.”

Then, just as suddenly, it is all taken away. Back in her small Austrian town she finds herself unable to cope with the poverty of the people, her home and her job. She meets Ferdinand, a soldier whose war wound means he is unable to continue his work as an architect. He is cynical of governments and bitter regarding his experience:

“In our Tartar village we didn’t know if Vienna was part of Bohemia, or maybe Italy. And we didn’t give a damn. All we cared about was stuffing a crust of bread down our throats and getting the lice out of our hair and finding some matches or tobacco sometime in the next five hours.”

For Christine, this man is soulmate, but these two souls are so damaged, so hurt and isolated, that they can only offer one another the bleakest kind of companionship.

“Christine was taken aback. The man beside her had said just what she’d been thinking all this time; he’d expressed clearly what she’d dully felt – the wish to be given one’s due, not to take anything from anyone, but to have some kind of life, not to be left out in the cold forever while others were warm inside.”

Zweig is unblinking in his portrayals of people, showing them with all their flaws, vanities and foibles, but still with great compassion. You feel for the characters precisely because they are so believably imperfect. The tyranny they face from the ruling class – either elected or via money – is presented as inescapable. The Post Office Girl is a novel about desperation, and how financial poverty can wear people down to a poverty of spirit. It is beautifully written and absolutely devastating.

In the Afterword of my edition William Deresiewicz suggests the novel is unfinished. I’m not sure I agree. I don’t know enough about Zweig’s style to argue my point forcefully, but to me, the ending occurs exactly where it should. It is perfect: sad but defiant, with so much unknown.

Secondly, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (1983, trans. Joachim Neugroschel 1988). Marina Sofia reviewed Jelinek’s volume of 3 plays In den Alpen for German Lit Month, do read her fascinating post which explains how controversial the author is in Austria due to her critique of Austrian society.  The Piano Teacher was the first of her novels to be translated into English and it was also adapted into a film in 2001, starring the wonderful Isabel Huppert and directed by Michael Haneke. I haven’t seen it but it looks a faithful adaptation:

I found The Piano Teacher an incredibly tough read. Jelinek does not pull her punches in any way. This tale of Erika, a woman living in a claustrophobic, abusive relationship with her mother, and her masochistic sexual desires seeking expression with one of her pupils is really hard going.

“They are enclosed together in a bell jar: Erika, her fine protective hulls, her mama.”

Jelinek creates the cruel, affectionate relationship between mother and daughter brilliantly. They are bound together in bitterness and a warped love.

“The daughter is the mother’s idol, and Mother demands only a tiny tribute: Erika’s life.”

Erika’s relationship with her mother and the abuse she suffers, and enacts, feeds into her sexual preferences, reminding me of The Blue Room. She is repressed (she shares a bed with her mother), and this expresses itself through the violence she metes out to her unsuspecting fellow commuters, and in one horrible instance, a pupil she is jealous of. She is a voyeur and attends peepshows and stalks couples in the park, but is incapable of becoming sexually aroused by what she witnesses. When a student, Klemmer, expresses an interest in her, the two begin a clumsy, stunted affair. It is no great love story:

“Klemmer is still concerned about that damned aged difference. However, he is a man, and that easily makes up for the ten years Erika has over him. Furthermore, female value decreases with increasing years and increasing intelligence. The technician in Klemmer computes all this data, and the bottom line of calculations reveals that Erika still has a wee bit of time before wandering into the tomb.”

The Piano Teacher is brutal. Jelinek’s imagery is disturbing, particularly around the sexual or body parts [the next quote is an example of this, don’t read if you think it will upset you, but I wanted to give a clear idea of a recurring theme in the novel]:

“Rot between her legs, an unfeeling soft mass. Decay, putrescent lumps of organic material. No spring breezes awaken anything. It is a dull pile of petty wishes and mediocre desires, afraid of coming true. Her two chosen mates will encompass her by crab claws: Mother and Klemmer.”

I was relieved to get to the end of The Piano Teacher, I don’t think I could have taken much more. Jelinek is a brilliant writer: her pacing and plotting are perfect and she has powerful things to say about the psychological warfare we wage on ourselves and others. But now I have to go and find a nice Golden Age crime novel with which to recover….

Regular readers will know that I do like to end on an 80s pop video and will shoehorn them into a post wherever possible. I’m delighted that my trip to Austria means I can end on this:

“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” (Thomas Mann)

Well, I’m off to an unbelievably slow start with German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, given that we’re more than halfway through the month and this is my first post. I’m hoping I’ll get some more posts in before the month is out, but clearly myself and productivity are not friends right now.

A picture of sloths in a pathetic and failed attempt to make my laziness more endearing

Image from here

Firstly, The Glass Bees (Gläserne Bienen, 1957) by Ernst Junger (trans. Louise Bogan & Elizabeth Mayer, NYRB, 2000), which was frankly, completely terrifying. Generally I’m not one for sci-fi/speculative fiction and now I know why, because they scare me silly. Written in the 1950s, the story is set in an undisclosed time and place sometime in future. At the time of publication, my edition tells me it was dismissed as irrelevant. To which I can only respond:

And commend those critics for their optimism. See if you can find any contemporary parallels: a powerful and ruthless business man has developed advanced technology and uses this to assert control of society through media and entertainment. Now I think about it, a more appropriate David Tennant gif would have been:

The tale is narrated by Richard, a war veteran and ambiguous character, who is considering being employed by the Donald Trump/Rupert Murdoch hybrid business man Zapparoni as a security chief/spy on his workers:

“The people employed by Zapparoni were an extremely difficult lot. Engaged in a most peculiar kind of work – the handling of minute and often extremely intricate objects – they gradually developed an eccentric, over-scrupulous behaviour, and they developed personalities which took offense at motes in a sunbeam.”

Zapparoni uses microtechnology but he has also developed automatons who are more than human. There are those that look like him and enable him to be in more than one place at once, and those who are used to promote an idealised form through film and media:

“Thus one might say that these figures did not simply imitate the human form but carried it beyond its possibilities and dimensions…the movements and expressions indicated that nature had been studied and surpassed.”

Likewise, the titular bees are micro-robots much more efficient at collecting nectar than actual bees. This unstable reality is part of the novel’s overall feel of not being able to trust what you see and struggling to understand feelings that are evoked by such odd circumstances. Richard is a cavalry soldier, and as such is an anachronism, harking back to days of animal and human power when the world has moved on. He is virtually unemployable, which is what leads him to Zapparoni in the first place, wholly aware that if he takes the job, at some point he is likely to meet with an ‘accident’.

Events at his job interview are equally discombobulating, with the elderly Zapparoni living in surprisingly old-fashioned surroundings and sending Richard into the garden for a gruesome test. I won’t say much more for fear of spoilers as The Glass Bees is a short (209 pages in my edition), tightly written novel set over 2 days. It packs a lot into such a short space though, as Richard’s immediate experiences and reminiscences give much food for thought on the nature of human beings, their relationship with technology, how power is wielded, where morality lies… big questions which mean The Glass Bees certainly leads itself to re-reading.

It is not a bleak novel; there is an enduring faith in humankind:

“I came to recognise that one single human being, comprehended in his depth, who gives generously from the treasures of his heart, bestows on us more riches than Caesar or Alexander could ever conquer. Here is our kingdom, the best of monarchies, the best republic. Here is our garden, our happiness.”

However, this faith is constantly under assault and The Glass Bees acts as a stark warning on the human price of technological progress:

“Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. If we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other; there is, in any case, a parting of the ways. .. Technical perfection strives towards the calculable, human perfection towards the incalculable.”

I’m not sure we’ve really learnt the lessons The Glass Bees presents. As I said at the start, terrifying.

From a speculative future to a novel that shows the fallout of the recent past, The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten, 1992) by WG Sebald (trans. Michael Hulse, Harvill Press, 1996). The Emigrants is familiar territory for readers of  Sebald, dealing with displacement, memory and loss with a deceptively simple voice and a narrative that blurs the lines between fiction and autobiography, complete with illustrative photographs. Narrated by an emigrant who comes to England and settles in Manchester, its four sections tell the stories of different emigrants with whom he comes into contact. The first section, ‘Dr Henry Selwyn’ tells of his eccentric landlord.

“Dr Selwyn liked to be out of doors, and especially in a flint-built hermitage in a remote corner of the garden, which he called his folly and which he had furnished with the essentials. But one morning just a week or so after we had moved in, I saw him standing at an open window of one of his rooms on the west side of the house. He had his spectacles on and was wearing a tartan dressing gown and a white neckerchief. He was aiming a gun with two inordinately long barrels up into the blue.”

As this passage captures, the short section (around 20 pages) is both whimsical and yet with an underlying sense of something much more serious. It shows how, following the second world war, what we see on the surface belies the enduring damage and pain that persists.

The second section ‘Paul Bereytyer’ begins with a suicide. The narrator’s childhood teacher has lain on the train tracks and the narrator pieces together his past in an attempt to understand why. Paul is a quarter Jewish and during the war “out of blind rage or even a sort of perversion” he returns to Berlin and gets called up into the artillery. What is truly haunting in this section is that the clues to his end are there all along for those who knew him:

“Railways had always meant a great deal to him – perhaps he felt they were headed for death. Timetables and directories, all the logistics of the railways, had at times been an obsession with him… I thought of the stations, tracks, goods depots and signal boxes that Paul had so often drawn on the blackboard  and which we had to copy into our exercise books as carefully as we could.”

The third section tells the story of the narrator’s Great-Uncle Adelwarth who travels around the world but ultimately ends up in an institution. In the final section, ‘Max Ferber’, an artist tells the narrator the story of his mother and the impact of the holocaust on his family.

“Memory…makes ones head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.”

The Emigrants is an incredible novel. Sebald writes with simplicity yet great beauty, building a picture of enduring war wounds. He demonstrates how the legacy of conflict is still to be felt, if only we open our eyes to see it.

“I now sometimes feel that at that moment I beheld an image of death [it] lasted only a very short time, and passed over me like the shadow of a bird in flight.”

To end, the trailer for the most expensive German TV series ever made, apparently. It’s set during the Weimar Republic, I’m 4 episodes in and enjoying it so far (contains scenes of drug taking and sauciness):

“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible” (Javier Pascual Salcedo)

Last week I looked at politics with a big P; this week I thought I’d look at politics with a small p, the civil servants and bureaucrats that keep the machine turning. Hence one novel about a postman and one about a clerk, and two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Firstly, The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault (2005, trans. Liedewy Hawke, 2008) which I first heard about over at Naomi’s blog Consumed by Ink – do check out her review! This novella (108 pages) is a wee gem. It tells the story of Bilodo, the titular mail deliverer, who loves his job.

“He wouldn’t have wanted to swap places with anyone in the world, Except perhaps with another postman.”

He spends his days delivering mail and practising calligraphy, and his nights steaming open the (increasingly rare) personal letters which he subsequently delivers the next day. He is a loner who enjoys the drama of life at a step removed:

“Love in every grammatical form and every possible tone, dished up in every imaginable shape: passionate letters or courteous ones, sometimes suggestive and sometimes chaste, either calm or dramatic, occasionally violent, often lyrical, and especially moving when the feelings were expressed in simple terms, and never quite as touching as  when the emotions hid between the lines, burning away almost invisibly behind a screen of innocuous words.”

Eventually though, he comes to obsess about one correspondence only, that between Segolene, a teacher in Guadalupe, and Gaston, a Canadian poet, which takes place through an exchange of haikus. Gradually Bilodo’s life becomes narrower and narrower as he is convinced he is in love with Segolene:

“Bilodo dreamt, and wished for nothing else; he wanted only to continue on like this, to keep savouring the dazzling dreams and ecstatic visions Segolene’s words conjured up for him. His only desire was that the pleasant status quo might endure, that nothing would disturb his quiet bliss.”

Needless to say, the status quo does not endure. Rather Bilodo’s life starts to rapidly unravel and reconstruct in a way that challenges who he is and his sense of self. I can’t say too much more for fear of spoilers in such a short book, but it is a beautifully written tale that has stayed with me.  Miraculously, Bilodo seems sad and misguided rather than creepy and disturbing.  The haikus are a great touch and a surprising source of comedy as Bilodo tries his hand and fails miserably. It’s most certainly a peculiar tale, melancholy yet playful, and with a truly surprising ending.

Secondly, All the Names by Nobel Prize- winning author Jose Saramago (1997, trans. Margaret Jull Costa, 1999). Superficially at least, this has many similarities with The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman. A male loner becomes obsessed with a woman he has never met, and his life is increasingly consumed in the quest for knowledge of her, whilst remaining removed from the woman herself. But All the Names has a very different feel to it, almost fabulist and bordering on the surreal.

Senhor Jose works in the Central Registry for Births, Marriages and Deaths. He thinks of himself as elderly although he’s only in his 50s, and is a reliable, unobstrusive worker.

“the Registry contains a record of everything and everyone, thanks to the persistent efforts of an unbroken line of great registrars, all that is most sublime and most trivial about public office has been brought together, the qualities that make the civil servant a creature apart, both usufructuary and dependent on the physical and mental space defined by the reach of his pen nib.”

However, Senhor Jose secretly flouts the Registry’s rules, by compiling records of celebrities, tracking the events in their lives and using the Registry’s documents to do so. In such a regimented place where everyone follows numerous rules, customs and protocols, the increased use of file documents is noted. At this point though, Senhor Jose accidently takes the file card of a perfectly ordinary woman, and subsequently becomes obsessed with piecing together her life without arousing the suspicions of his monolith employer.

“One of the many mysteries in life in the Central Registry, which really would be worth investigating if the matter of Senhor Jose and the unknown woman had not absorbed all our attention, was how the staff, despite the traffic jams affecting the city, always managed to arrive at work in the same order, first the clerks, regardless of length of service, then the deputy who opened the door, then the senior clerks, in order of precedence, then the oldest deputy, and finally, the Registrar, who arrives when he has to arrive and does not have to answer to anyone. Anyway, the fact stands recorded.”

As Senhor Jose pieces together the woman’s history, Saramago is able to explore enormous themes around life, death, purpose, memorial, memory, the state and individual free will. He does so with such wit and humanity that it is never a heavy going, but rather a careful balance of compassion and absurdity which makes for an unsettling, though-provoking read.

“There was almost an absolute silence, you could scarcely hear the noise made by the few cars still out and about in the city. What you could hear most clearly was a muffled sound that rose and fell, like a distant bellows, but Senhor Jose was used to that, it was the Central Registry breathing.”

To end, I know Pete Burns is singing about vinyl not paper, but there are surprisingly few pop songs about administrative record-keeping:

“War is Peace” (George Orwell, 1984)

Of course, Orwell’s doublethink, whereby directly contradictory political messages obfuscate any sort of truth, looks completely ridiculous in this day and age…

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(Miss you, Carrie)

A slight departure this week Reader, as rather than two books linked by a theme, for this post its one book only. One novel which is the size of 4 novels and has tested my aversion to e-books to the extreme, as lugging it around town on my commute and various evenings out has seen my back reach a place that even the most experienced osteopath would baulk at.  Look at the size of this beast:

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It is of course, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1865-8) and for once a new year’s resolution fulfilled, as I decided 2017 was going to be the year. Such an epic stretches my limited reviewing capabilities so instead I present my War and Peace reading diary.  Thrills! Spills! Intrigue! Romance! Or none of the above and instead one bibliophile risking permanent musculo-skeletal disfigurement in the name of experiencing a cornerstone of classic literature – you decide! (Warning: this post is nearly as long as the Russian epic itself, my apologies Reader, I think Tolstoy is catching…)

Day 1

I planned to start reading War and Peace 6 days ago. One day I’ll be a disciplined person. Or possibly not.

There are 1444 pages in my Penguin edition (trans. Rosemary Edmonds, 1962-3, revised 1978). There’s a list of principal characters, which I thought was helpful until Wiki informed me that there are nearly 600 characters in this novel. The list names a full 26. What have I taken on?

As a further incentive to get this read I decide to reward completion with the BBC adaptation which everyone seemed to rate so highly:

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Or more specifically, I choose to reward myself with this (shameless objectification alert):

The foil blanket awaiting the end of this marathon….

The foil blanket awaiting the end of this marathon….

Day one and so far I’m finding Tolstoy enjoyably cynical (so long as I forget he was horrible to his wife IRL):

“Never, never marry my dear fellow. This is my advice to you – don’t marry until you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of doing, and until you cease to love the woman of your choice and see her plainly, as she really is; or else you will be making a cruel and irreparable mistake. Marry when you are old and good for nothing. Otherwise everything that is fine and noble in you will be thrown away.”

And also a rival to Austen in the bitchy social commentary stakes:

They wept because they were friends, and because they were warm hearted, and because they – friends from childhood – should have to think about anything so sordid as money, and because their youth was over…But the tears of both were sweet to them.”

Both good things.

Pages read: 65 (pathetic) Pages remaining: 1379

Day 2

It’s predictable and trite to moan about the patronymic system in Russian novels so I won’t mention the fact that I’m struggling with the fact that everyone has 27 names. Instead I’ll restrict myself to sharing my frustration that three – three! –  principal characters are called Nikolai and the narrator refers to ‘the princess’ when there’s more than one princess in the room.

These quibbles aside – I’m hooked. War and Peace is completely brilliant.

Total pages read: 204 (better) Pages remaining: 1240

Days 3 – 5

War and Peace should come with a health warning: will induce antisocial behaviour. I’m really annoyed that social engagements arranged BWP (Before War and Peace) are taking me away from my reading time. I look up at the end of my commute disappointed that no-one around me looks even vaguely Cossack-like and apparently we’re no longer at war with Napoleon.

The peace sections are full of astute observations about socially mannered manipulations:

 “Weierother met all objections with a firm and contemptuous smile that was evidently prepared beforehand against any piece of criticism, whatever it might be.”

We’re also getting more into the psychology of soldiering and war, which is bleak and depressing, such as Andrei’s attitude to his loved ones:

“ ‘All the same, the only thing I love and prize is triumph over all of them. I care for nothing but this mysterious power and glory which I seem to feel in the haze that hangs above my head’ ”

Tolstoy is astonishing. Maybe no-one mentions his wit because his psychological insights are so devastating.

Total pages read: 404 (rubbish – stupid social life) Pages remaining: 1040

Day 6 – 7

Is it wrong that manipulative, destructive, serial seducer Dolokhov is my favourite character? (Answer: yes.) I know I should prefer sweet Pierre: “Moscow gave him the sensation of peace and warmth that one has in an old and dirty dressing gown”

or noble Andrei “the chief reason for his wanting to weep was a sudden acute sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable existing within him and the narrow material something which he, even she, was.”

But who are they to this one-man dirty bomb blasting his way through the drawing rooms of Moscow? I wonder who plays him in the BBC adaptation?

I doff my hat to you, BBC casting director.

I doff my hat to you, BBC casting director.

Bitchy social commentary of the day: “He believed that just as a duck is so created that it must live in water, so he was created by God for the purpose of spending thirty thousand roubles a year and occupying the highest pinnacle of society. He was so firmly grounded in this opinion that others, looking at him, were persuaded of it too, and refused him neither the exalted position in society nor the money, which he borrowed right and left with no notion of ever repaying it.”

Total pages read: 702 Pages remaining: 742 (managed to catch up to my goal of 100 pages a day). Nearly halfway!

Day 8

War! What is it good for?

“The forces of Western Europe crossed the frontiers of Russia, and war began: in other words, an event took place to counter all the laws of human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetuated against one another such innumerable crimes, deceptions, treacheries, robberies, forgeries, issues of false monies, depredations, incendiarisms and murders as the annals of all the courts of justice in the world could not muster in the course of whole centuries, but which those who committed them did not at the time regards as crimes.”

Absolutely nothing. Say it again, y’all.

Total pages read: 864 Pages remaining: 580

Day 9

The serious tone continues, with the bitchy social commentary sadly no more, but it does sharpen the focus on the horrors of war and the psychological fallout on the characters.

 “behind the veil of smoke the sun still stood high, and in front… a turmoil still seethed in the smoke, and the thunder of canon and musketry, far from slackening, grew louder and more desperate, like a man who puts all his remaining strength into one final cry”

A man sat next to me on my commute today sporting an enormous white beard and a Cossack hat. He has no idea how happy he made me.

Total pages read: 1006 Pages remaining: 438

Day 10 -11

The final stretch! I can’t say too much about what I’m reading for fear of spoilers.

Instead I’ll just say that I’ll be sorry to see it go, and frankly, I wonder if Tolstoy could have made it a bit longer.

Although I do think most editors today would try and dissuade authors from ending a 1400+ page novel with an abandonment of all narrative for a 40 page philosophical discussion on the nature of power and freewill…

Total pages read: 1444 Pages remaining: none!

So that’s me done, and I can’t quite believe it. There will be no stopping me now from reading other epics which have lain languishing in my TBR. Next: Ulysses! Infinite Jest! The Count of Monte Cristo! A different translation of War and Peace! I think I need a little lie down…

“Let it snow!” (Dean Martin)

Or, you know, don’t.  A friend of mine from the east coast of America asked me last week why all the weather reports in the UK were focussing on snowmageddon when really, very little happened. A German colleague is baffled every year by our total inability to deal with anything above a flurry. I have no answers for them. What I do have, in honour of the snow that barely made an appearance last week, is novels where there is serious snow. Snow that means business. Snow you have to dig yourself out of. If only because then I get to include this gif:

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Firstly Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson (2010, tr.2015 Quentin Bates 2015). I’m not a huge reader of crime fiction set any time after the middle of the last century, but I was convinced by the enthusiastic reviews of FictionFan and Sarah from Hard Book Habit, and the promise that this was like a golden age crime novel but with a contemporary, Icelandic setting (the author translated Agatha Christie into Icelandic when he was 17).

Rookie copper Ari Thor Arason leaves Reykjavik and his girlfriend behind to take a posting in the remote town of Siglufjordur, in the far north of Iceland. A place so small you don’t need to drive to get around, and only accessible via a mountain pass.

“On the right were the snow white mountains, magnificent and formidable, while on the other side was a terrifying, sheer drop onto the expanse of Skagafjordur. One mistake on a patch of ice and there would be no tomorrow…he relaxed as the tunnel entrance finally approached. They had made it all the way in one piece. But his relief was short-lived. He expected a broad, well-lit modern tunnel, but what lay in front of him looked forbidding. It was a narrow single track. Ari Thor later learned it had been carved through the mountainside more than forty years ago when there were only a few tunnels in Iceland. It didn’t help that water dripped here and there from the unseen rock ceiling above. Ari Thor suddenly felt himself struck by a feeling he had never experienced before – an overwhelming claustrophobia.”

As Ari Thor settles into life in place where everyone knows everyone and no-one locks their doors, a local celebrity falls down some stairs whilst drunk and dies (or did he? or was he?) When a woman is found close to death, bleeding out in the snow in her garden, the police start to suspect that the two may be linked. As “every winter is a heavy winter in Siglufjordur”, the mountain pass is soon made unpassable through an avalanche, and so essentially what  Jonasson has done is use the snow to create a claustrophobic, tense, locked-room murder mystery (please commend me on my enormous restraint in avoiding snow-based puns like ‘chilling’ or ‘unsettling’, despite the fact it is both those things).

Snowblind is a short novel (252 pages in my edition) and so I can’t say much more without spoilers. What I will say is that it feels resolutely contemporary with references to the financial crash which devastated Iceland at the time (although for the once-busy port of Siglufjordur, “if there’s a recession here, it comes from the sea”) whilst at the same time being part of a tradition of non-gory, page-turning whodunits. Siglufjordur itself is wonderfully evoked, with a real sense of place created, whilst at the same time becoming a fictional other, and somewhat eerie.

Siglufjordur

Siglufjordur

Image from here

“This peaceful little town was being compressed by the snow, no longer a familiar winter embrace but a threat like never before. The white was no longer pure, but tinged blood red.”

Secondly, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg (1992, tr. F David 1993) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit (new year’s resolution from now on – stop being so euro-centric with this challenge). I distinctly remember all the hype around this novel when it first came out. Not that I’m slow on the uptake, but 24 years later, I’ve finally read it. These days we are awash with antisocial-genius detectives but back in the day Smilla Jaspersen may have been more of a novelty:

“I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessing of the church. It’s the light of grace for me.”

Smilla does need people, even if she doesn’t like to admit it, and when her neighbour, six year old  Isiah, falls to his death from a roof, she is galvanised to act:

“Isiah’s death is an irregularity, an eruption that produced a fissure. That fissure has set me free. For a brief time, and I can’t explain how, I have been set in motion, I have become a foreign body skating on top of the ice.”

Smilla, half-Greenlandic, can read the snow and she knows Isiah’s last footprints tell a different story to the one the authorities are spinning. This is a theme throughout the novel, which is as much a commentary on post-colonial power structures as it a detective story. Smilla has a history of far left political activism and is not easily cowed by those trying to silence her. I found her a believable, idiosyncratic heroine and really enjoyed her matter-of-fact voice:

 “The knives I keep in my apartment are just sharp enough to open envelopes with… I don’t need anything sharper. Otherwise, on bad days, it might easily occur to me that I could always go and stand in the bathroom and slit my throat. Against such a contingency it’s nice to have the added security of needing to go downstairs and borrow a decent knife from a neighbour.”

My quibble would be that I thought the story lost momentum a bit when Smilla left Denmark and journeyed towards Greenland; I think the return to the land of her childhood was inevitable so maybe it needed a heavier edit earlier in the novel. But overall, an intriguing premise for an intelligent mystery with a strong political message.

“Reading snow is like listening to music. To describe what you’ve read is to try and explain music in writing.”

To end, the unintentionally hilarious trailer for the film adaptation. So very earnest, so very heavy-handed 😀  (and yet still following the Hollywood tradition of whitewashing, unless Julia Ormond is part-indigenous Greenlander?)

“At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” (W. Somerset Maugham)

‘Tis the season of the works Christmas do, and this week I’ll be stuffing my face at not one but two dinners, as I’m going to both my old job and new job’s yuletide outing. I hate works outings, so I’d be tempted to proclaim that there is no God, but that’s not really in keeping with the season. So I’ll just say I’m not happy about the week’s forthcoming events.

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This week I’m looking at two stories that will help me stop being so ungrateful, as they feature horrific dinners with despicable people. Buon Natale!

Firstly, The Dinner by Herman Koch (2009, tr. 2012 Sam Garrett) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Paul and his wife Claire are meeting his brother Serge and his wife Babette at a swish Amsterdam restaurant. Fairly quickly, it is apparent that Paul harbours a great deal of resentment towards his brother:

“Through and through, Serge remained a yokel, a boorish lout: the same boorish lout who used to get sent from the table for farting”

The dinner begins to unravel from the beginning. Babette arrives visibly upset:

 “Yet there was something else, something different about her this time, like a room where someone has thrown out all the flowers while you were gone: a change in the interior you don’t even notice at first, not until you see the stems sticking out of the garbage.”

As they work their way through the dinner (the different sections of the book are split into the consecutive sections of a menu), Paul reflects on why they are actually all meeting – to discuss a horrific crime which has taken place – and recent events in his life. The further we get into the novel, the more of Paul’s personality begins to emerge, from a slightly controversial take on memorial stones…

 “The injustice is found more in the fact that the assholes are also put on the list of innocent victims. That their names are also chiselled onto the war memorials.”

…escalating to an increasingly apparent violent nature and fascistic attitude to people.  A worrying combination:

“The little hairs on the back of my neck and my tingling fingers had not betrayed me: when the lower intelligences are about to lose an argument, they grasp at other straws in order to justify themselves.”

I won’t say too much more for fear spoilers, but The Dinner is a quick read, its light touch belying its serious concerns: should personal interest ever outweigh societal responsibility and what are the ramifications if it does?

Safe to say you’ll finish the novel mightily relieved that you never have to sit down to a meal with a single character portrayed within. And this is Koch’s master stroke. I desperately wanted the whole family to implode, for justice to be done. In doing so, I realised I wasn’t so very different to these repugnant people and their feeling of moral superiority towards others. It was not a comfortable place to be. The Dinner leaves a bad taste in the mouth, exactly as its creator intended.

Secondly, Festen (2004), the stage play by David Eldridge of the 1998 film by Thomas Vinterberg (trigger warning: mentions incest). I was a huge fan of the Dogme 95 films and I saw the play in 2004 where it translated well to the stage. It’s a simple plot but powerful: Christian’s twin sister Linda has killed herself and as the family meet to celebrate their father’s 60th birthday, Christian makes a speech about why Linda would do such thing – the sexual abuse she and Christian endured as children at the hands of their father.

“Christian: I apologise for interrupting again.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten the most important thing. We’re here today because it is my father’s birthday. We’re not here for any other reason.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry if I led you all up the garden path before. I am sorry. I’d like to make it all up to you all now by asking you to charge your glasses. To my father.

Helmut: Well done Christian.

Poul: Yes, well done.

Christian: If you would all like to stand with me. And raise your glasses.

Everyone stands.

To the man who killed my sister. To a murderer.”

Unsurprisingly, all hell breaks loose. Unlike The Dinner, there are people to care about and root for. Despite the horrific subject matter, there are moments of levity and the play is warm towards the majority of the characters.  Reading plays can be an odd business, because it’s not the primary form for the story. I found the playtext of Festen very readable and affecting, but if you don’t fancy it, do give the film a go, as the story is a moving one and brilliantly directed (contains swearing):

What a depressing post this has turned into! ‘Tis the season of being grumpy about enforced joviality 😉 I promise I’ve a much lighter-hearted Crimbo post planned for next week. For this week, I wish you all a lovely load of Christmas parties, may they be as adorable as this dinner:

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