Sunday, 29 April 2012

Literature and War Readalong - 'Coventry' by Helen Humphreys

Hello to all who are visiting from Caroline's Literature and War Readalong - and welcome to my blog.  As I explained in my previous post, I have a personal connection to the story (Coventry, by Candian writer Helen Humphreys), so I was very interested in taking part this time.  Was it worth it?  Well, let's find out...

We begin on the night of the 14th of November, 1940, and Harriet, a woman in her mid-forties, has found herself on fire-watching duty on the roof of St. Michael's, the Anglican cathedral in Coventry.  After a brief journey into the past, taking in the departure of Harriet's husband for the front in the First World War (and his subsequent death), we return to the roof of the cathedral.  And, as any Coventrian knows, this was not a good evening to be gazing up at the night sky...

The 14th of November marked the climax of the Coventry Blitz, a series of air raids on the industrial city, and the first real attack by the German Luftwaffe on civilian targets.  Whereas earlier raids attempted to distinguish between military and civilian areas, Hitler had decided that this time the whole city was fair game.  What followed was the greatest aerial destruction the war had seen up to that point.

As Harriet and Jeremy, a young fellow fire watcher, escape from the roof and attempt to make their way through the rubble-strewn streets, briefly stopping to help out in air-raid shelters and bombed houses, the unlikely couple come to depend on each other more and more.  Little do they know that there is a lot more which connects them than this one fateful night ...

Sadly, I would have to say that I wasn't particularly impressed by Coventry.  There were some good points: the idea and setting; the descriptions of the bombing and the impassable streets; the scenes which had Harriet and Jeremy attempting to flee the city centre.  The scene centring on a man who decided to have a shave in the middle of the bombing was one which worked particularly well.

Overall though, I couldn't help thinking that it was a very slight attempt at a story.  There were numerous, clumsy info dumps, particularly in setting up the back stories of Harriet and Maeve, another woman caught in the crossfire.  The romance between Harriet and Jeremy wasn't particularly convincing, even in light of (or because of?) what was happening outside.

I also had a very strong feeling that the writer had no real connection to, or affinty with, the city being described.  The idea of using two women who didn't come from Coventry seemed like a convenient way to avoid using any kind of identifiable dialect or accent, one which rather annoyed me as nobody really stood out in conversations.  Oh, and trust me on this - Coventry is not, I repeat, not in the north of England...

The ending though was beautiful and poignant, and I think the last couple of sections showed where Humphreys' strength lies - in description.  Both the final scene in the cathedral, and the later scene of reflection on the night of the bombing are wonderfully done.  Unfortunately, the novel as a whole doesn't measure up to the ending.

The great story of the night of the 14th of November, 1940, then has yet to be written (the classic Coventry story, of course, most definitely has...), and I'd like to see someone attempt it.  Coventry is along the right lines, but it is too slight, too sentimental and not focused enough on the city itself.  I would prefer to see a more substantial novel, building up slowly to the destruction of the cathedral, introducing us to real characters, using local language and painting a vivid picture of the city which was to suffer from the attack of the Luftwaffe.  That's not too much to ask now, is it? ;)

For those who were more impressed with the book than I was, I found a link to Humphreys talking about her novel, in which she answers questions relating to how and why she wrote it.  I'm still not convinced, but it is interesting to see what she says about the book :)

While the book isn't all I would have wanted, don't let that put you off visiting the location!  As you may know, the old cathedral was partially destroyed by the raid, a new building being constructed across from the ruins of the bombed church.  A common joke in Coventry is that what the Germans couldn't destroy, 1950s city planners managed to finish off, an ironic reflection on the wind-swept concrete wasteland which replaced the bombed-out centre of the city. 

Luckily, Coventry is undergoing a transformation, and it's a much nicer place to visit than used to be the case :)  While the new cathedral (especially the exterior) doesn't agree with everyone, there is no doubt that the connection of the roofless ruin with the imposing new building is an impressive one.  I hope the book has made you curious enough to want to visit the cathedral one day...

Saturday, 28 April 2012

In our Coventry homes...

I'm not overly fond of books about war, but when Caroline announced that the April book for her Literature and War Readalong would be Helen Humphreys' Coventry, I was immediately on board - for the obvious reason that it's my home town :)  I'll be posting a review of the book on the thirtieth, along with everyone else, but today I thought I'd take a little trip down memory lane and talk about some personal experiences, especially in connection with the cathedral.

The cathedral is the focal point of Coventry, the one real icon at the heart of the city.  It's a place we all visited as schoolkids, and it's cemented in local culture in many ways.  It's one of the famous 'three spires' which appear in tourist guides and on various signs, and it's even mentioned in a football chant sung by fans of the local team, Coventry City:
"We speak with an accent exceedingly rare,
If you want a cathedral we've got one to spare"
And you all know (or soon will know) why...
The Old Cathedral, burnt out in the Coventry Blitz in November 1940, is a stunning memorial, cleared of rubble, but otherwise left in its post-bombing state.  There is a cross of nails, made from nails recovered from the ruins, and the two pieces of wood fashioned into a cross on the morning after the bombings still stand at the far end of the church, with the words 'Father Forgive' emblazoned behind them.  I actually missed my school trip to the cathedral (my little sister was being born at the time...), so my uncle took me a couple of weeks later.  This turned out to be a good thing as we were able to climb the tower, something the schoolkids weren't allowed to do (and which for many years was actually impossible).  I remember the view from the top, looking down onto the bare floor of the exposed church and then across to the left...

...where the new St. Michael's Cathedral is connected to the old one by a covered walkway.  It's best to approach the new cathedral from the ground-level steps though, taking in the size of the imposing building and pausing in front of the statue of St. Michael and the Devil, hovering above the wary visitor as both a welcome and a warning.

The moment you step inside the new cathedral, your eyes are drawn to one thing, and one thing only.  Directly opposite is the enormous Tapestry of Christ, designed by Graham Sutherland.  It has to be seen to be believed, taking up the whole wall behind the altar, grabbing the attention of everyone who walks through the doors.

There are other, more trivial, details I remember about the new building though.  On the floor, there is a trail of coins, pennies from 1962, the year the new building was completed and opened.  Children often walk slowly down the aisles, heads down , following the large coins embedded at frequent intervals in the tiles.  There are also several stained-glass windows along the sides of the church, which remind me of another personal experience...

You see, when I was a young boy, I was in the cubs for a few years, and every year we had a service at the cathedral for all the packs in the city.  Each pack had a flag, and one year I was chosen to be a flagbearer, a position of great prestige, but also one of immense responsibility.  The flag was mounted at the top of a pole, with the other end resting in a small holder strapped around my waist.  Unfortunately, it was a long pole, and I wasn't the biggest of boys, so as I stood at the side of the church, it overbalanced several times, almost toppling me off my feet, and coming perilously close to plunging through one of the beautiful windows.  Luckily, I just about managed to make it hit the wall instead...

There's one final part of the cathedral I'd like to talk about, and it's situated under the new building.  There is a museum displaying artefacts from the history of both the cathedral and the city, and, as is to be expected, a major focus is the night of the destruction of the cathedral.  There is a short film about Coventry, which has recordings from the night of the attack and interviews with survivors.  Although the film as a whole is a little kitschy, the parts detailing the events of November 1940 are harrowing..., no doubt, you have already discovered if you've finished Humphreys' book.

So, that's enough about me and the cathedral(s).  In a couple of days, I'll be back with the real review.  Does the book live up to the story behind it?  You'll just have to wait and see ;)

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Twelve-A

Yesterday’s post focused on what Péter Nádas was trying to say in his epic novel Parallel Stories (translated by Imre Goldstein)– today’s will look a little more at how he said it, and try to work out how successful this book really is.  I hope you're in for the long haul...

There's a lot to discuss when thinking about the writer's use of language in Parallel Stories.  The language used in the book is, as you would expect, wide-ranging, and with Nádas’ mother tongue of Hungarian differing so much from English, the translation has attempted to keep as much of the original flavour as possible.  The word order can be confusing, reflecting the choices the writer made in the more flexible original language, and the choice of vocabulary attempts to show the tone of the Hungarian words used.

Parallel Stories is notable for its long, elaborate descriptions, almost Proustian in its attention to detail.  Where Proust describes inanimate objects in great detail though, Nádas saves most of his descriptive talents for action, especially of the sexual kind.  His extended portrayal of Ágost and Gyöngyvér’s sex session (and it is sex, not lovemaking) is probably the most obvious example of this, drawing the reader in and telling them things they would probably rather not know about the external and internal anatomy of the lithe young things.

However, this attention to detail is also evident in the way the writer deals with dialogue.  There is a plethora of lengthy conversations in the novel, and Nádas’ approach here is less Proustian than Jamesian.  Like Henry James, Nádas performs the feat of having his characters exchange bland, trivial remarks, which appear loaded only because we are told of the physical and psychological state of the speakers.  The psychological processes are stripped bare, and it is the emotions we are witness to, rather than the words we hear, which are important.

As if this is not difficult enough for the reader, there are more traps in store.  Nádas has decided to dispense with quotation marks, probably because they make life simpler for anyone trying to follow his dialogue.  This omission, coupled with a tendency to jump between direct and indirect speech, often in the same conversation, can make it tricky to work out who said what.  When you realise that the writer also often avoids giving the name of the characters involved until the chapters are well underway, you can imagine how confusing things can become.  Now, imagine, if you will, passages where the action shifts from character to character, place to place, time to time at the drop of a hat, sometimes in mid-sentence…

There are times when Nádas’ relentless prose is a joy, a flow of words washing over the reader.  Below is an example I picked out, virtually at random:
“Continually, without letup, relentlessly, I thought of only one thing, that I had never seen such beauty and never would again if I left her even for a moment.  Her eyes, the color of her eyes or her glance, I don’t know what, but it paralyzed me.  Her scent probably had a part in this, but I could reach only the edge of it because she took it with her, though sometimes she left thick clouds of it behind.  Her eyes were not blue but not green either.  As if I were looking down into the depths of unfamiliar waters.  I did not understand the angry darkness, but the color of the water was throwing sparks at me.  No human can have eyes of this color.  There is no water of this color, no material of any kind.”  p.456

However, at other times, pages of dull, trite, pointless dialogue sludge up the story, brief moments of time stretched out over dozens of pages.  It’s this constant battle that makes reading Parallel Stories such a chore at times.  Just when you start to feel that you’re making progress, along comes another twenty-page roadblock, stopping you dead in your tracks.  Perhaps this effort though, the constant struggle to negotiate the writer’s linguistic choices, is precisely what makes it the book it is…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
That is a very difficult question to answer.  When confronted with a work like Parallel Stories, it seems almost absurd that it could be on the same footing as some of the other contenders – shouldn’t there be weight categories?  Alas, that is not the case, so we are forced to compare books that are as different as apples and monoliths.  If we were basing our decision purely on ambition, there would be no contest: Parallel Stories would win every prize going and be mentioned in the same breath as Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdus as one of the most impressive works of literature of the modern era.  Instead though we’re basing our decision more on the success of the novel, and I’m not sure the decision here is quite so clear-cut.

There’s an argument for saying that Parallel Stories is both over- and under-written.  There are whole sections where you cannot wait for the endless prose to end, for something, anything to happen, for the writer’s attention to be diverted from breasts, penises, lips or whatever body part he is currently focusing on.  On the other hand, after well over a thousand pages of small type on very large pages (I’ve heard that the book actually runs to more than 1500 pages in other versions), the intrepid soul who has conquered Mount Nádas gets to the summit and thinks… Have I missed something?  Wasn’t there supposed to be a story in there somewhere?

I also have some issues with the translation, mainly personal ones.  I’m not a big fan of American translations, preferring to have only one filter, not two, between myself and the writer, and Parallel Stories, set as it is throughout the second half of the twentieth century, is full of foreign, awkward words and expressions.  The unique style of the original is undoubtedly to blame for much of this, but when my very-English mind stumbles upon words such as ‘Daddio’, my mental red pen comes out and (in a triumph of mixed metaphors) chalks up another black mark.

So my answer then is no, not quite.  The real panel has, as you will know, agreed with me; the Shadow Panel, or at least our chairman, has disagreed.  It will be interesting to see what we all think of Parallel Stories when we come to discuss it.  Assuming, of course, that any of the other members have managed to get to the end of it…

Why did it miss the shortlist?
For the reasons outlined above, plus one undeniable truth.  I honestly don’t think the judges fancied ploughing through it again…

OK, I'm off for a sleep to recover.  There'll be more IFFP fun when I've restored my strength :)

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Twelve

If there’s one book which stands out on the longlist of the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, it’s Péter Nádas’ epic novel Parallel Stories (translated by Imre Goldstein).  A monster of a book, eighteen years in the writing (and four in the translating), it runs to 1133 pages, and the hardback copy I obtained from my local library weighs a ton.  It’s a book with themes heavy enough to match its bulk, a story of a country and its inability to face its recent past.  The question is though, (ignoring its size) is it any good?

What’s it all about? 
Parallel Stories is a book which is extraordinarily difficult to pin down.  There are two major strands, revolving around events in the small German town of Pfeilen and various places in Hungary, particularly Budapest.  The main characters come from two families – the German Döhrings and the Hungarian Lippay Lehrs.  Within each half of the story though, there are several different timelines and viewpoints, meaning the reader has to pay a lot of attention and remember a vast array of names, many of them extremely unfamiliar.

The novel start with a suspicious death in Berlin, but we are soon torn away to Budapest in 1961.  Right from the beginning, we never stop jumping from time to time, place to place, part-way through chapters, even mid-sentence.  At times it is difficult to make out (or even believe in) a coherent plot of any kind.  The reader experiences vague connections, echoes, parallels between events, and while it is tempting to draw conclusions from the information we’re presented with, it’s hard to imagine that we are really meant to be any the wiser by the end of the book about any underlying grand plan.

We’re not even really sure who the central characters are supposed to be.  The dust cover of my version focuses on André, Hans and Ágost, three Hungarians who, having lived abroad, felt like exiles in their native Budapest.  Having read the book though, I’m not all that convinced by what seems a very convenient (and arbitrary choice).  For me, the key characters are Döhring, the young German student whose discovery of a body begins the book, and Kristóf, the youngest member of the Hungarian family and the one whose path we most often cross.

One reason why these two characters stand out, apart from the relatively-extended appearance time they have, are the obvious parallels between them.  Both are psychology students, introverted and struggling to make sense of the world, despite (or perhaps because of) their insights into the human psyche.  Both have confused sexuality, yearning for the unavailable or forbidden.  Both spend time on bland, yet tension-ridden, conversations with a person they’re intrigued with.  There’s a lot they have in common…

And the parallels don’t stop there – in fact, as you may have guessed, the novel is packed with them.  The word is ubiquitous, to the point of being overused.  Nádas carefully constructs parallels between anything he can think of, from the two countries and families, to the actions his characters take.  Lesbian mothers, children snatched and later returned, names adopted and discarded – wherever there’s an action, there seems to be an equal and similar action somewhere else among the many, many pages Parallel Stories has to offer the reader…

Of course, the problem is keeping all that straight without having to take copious notes (something I started doing half-way through the book…).  As well as being incredibly long, the book doesn’t exactly make it easy for the reader to keep up with events.  Characters pop up briefly, disappear for what seems like enough time for glaciers to cover Europe again, then reappear in another place entirely.  As a child.  You think I’m joking?  The detective Kienast, whom the unsuspecting reader would have taken as a major character at the start of the novel, promptly vanishes, not to be seen until close to the end of the book.  However, another Kienast, a child who may or may not be the same person, does get a mention a little earlier – about 600 pages in…

Regardless of whether there is any real overarching structure to the book, there are several themes that crop up repeatedly.  The one that probably gets the most attention, and may put many people off the book, is the prominent position sex has in Parallel Stories.  I don’t think I’ve read a work of literature which has such lengthy, detailed descriptions of sexual acts, smells, positions and fantasies, passages which test the stamina of the reader just as much as that of the participants.  For the most part, Nádas is a tease, spreading anticipation and memories of sex over several pages, preferring anticipation to the actual consummation (and when you think again of the size of the book, that may come as no surprise!).

At times though, the sex is graphic, leaving nothing – absolutely nothing – to the imagination.  I’ve read that this idea of hedonism was a reaction to the lack of freedom Hungarians had, a way of reclaiming their identity and independence, and it’s an idea which does make sense.  There’s a pervading sense of sexual liberation and freedom of choice in sexual identity, one particularly evident in Kristóf, what with his pursuit of the entrancing Klára and his nocturnal adventures in Budapest’s gay underworld.  The forty-page session enjoyed by Ágost and his girlfriend, Gyöngyvér, is surely pushing this idea to the limit though…

Another interesting idea is the focus on mental illness and schizophrenia.  This takes us back to Döhring and Kristóf, both of whom appear to have some sort of issue, unable to cope with the parallel desires they experience.  This may also be a metaphor for the whole book, as Budapest itself is a schizophrenic city, and not just in the divided, geographical sense.  Nádas repeatedly mentions the split between the normal folk on the street and the Hungarian aristocracy, and the Lippay Lehrs, with both noble origins and communist leanings, are particularly torn between these two opposing poles.  The country as a whole, however, could also be seen as schizophrenic, needing to pretend that everything is alright, ignoring the political realities and the ever-present brutality in order to stay sane…

In the end though, it’s probably pointless to dig too deeply into all of this madness.  If it took Nádas as much time to write Parallel Stories as it takes to raise a child, there’s little chance that I’m going to unlock its secrets in one insignificant review.  It’s a book which takes a lot of reading, but it does reward the reader, even if the first half is rather slow going.  A more thorough knowledge of Hungary and its recent history would probably make things a little clearer, but one thing is for sure – this is not a book for the faint-hearted!

Oh dear!  Nádas' love of elaboration is obviously catching - I'm only half-way there...  Join me tomorrow for the second half of my Parallel Stories review, in which I discuss its linguistic qualities and whether it was good enough for the shortlist :)

Monday, 23 April 2012

Is Everybody Happy?

It seems that I just can't get away from translated fiction these days.  Not content to plough through the longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I have also been taking a look at some newer appearances on the market, and today's offering is a new story from an old friend.  I have already reviewed several books from the wonderful And Other Stories stable, and today they are taking us to Russia for a brief look at life in modern Moscow.  I do hope you like Vodka...

Oleg Zaionchkovsky's Happiness is Possible* (translated by Andrew Bromfield) is a collection of short reflections on contemporary Russian life, told by an unnamed writer, presumably an alter-ego of Zaionchkovsky himself.  Our friend lives in a small flat in the Russian capital, reflecting on the nature of his adopted hometown, mostly failing to get any writing done and constantly negotiating with his dog, Phil, as to the frequency and direction of their walks.  The writer gradually tells us more about his life, including his mediocre career, his visits to his hometown (just outside Moscow) and his complex relationship with ex-wife Tamara (or Toma).  The more we learn about the man and his dog, the more we are able to reflect on the statement the writer gives us to consider: is happiness possible?

While the main idea running through the book is the writer's personal life, it is contrasted with another important concept, the city of Moscow itself.  In fact, Happiness is Possible is just as much a portrait of modern life in the Russian metropolis as it is a personal journal.  As the writer says:
"If we acknowledge that a city is a living organism, we must acknowledge its place in creation.  And in so doing, we shall be obliged to cede our priority and accept that it is not we human beings who are the crown of creation, but the city."
This is exactly the view he takes, placing Moscow at the heart of the novel and describing the efforts of the ant-like people living there to adjust to - and cope with - life in the big city.  His creations (and they are often creations of both Zaionchkovsky and his narrator) struggle to make a foothold for themselves in the capital, with both residential permits and love in short supply.

Zaionchkovsky's style is laid-back and informal, the prose soaked in a dry humour which takes a while to get used to, but which suits the meandering style of the book.  In a way it reminded me of the classic Victorian novel Three Men in a Boat, both for the inclusion of the dog and for the laid-back, idling lifestyle the writer describes.  When our friend spends a day at his dacha (small country house), he writes:
"The day passes in the way that a summer day at the dacha should: in glorious idleness.  So that it will be remembered for nothing but this state of drowsy, delightful drifting."
You can almost imagine the gentle ripple of the Thames, and ducks sailing serenely past in the background...

However, Happiness is Possible is more similar to another of Jerome K. Jerome's works, Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, in its structure of short, loosely connected musings on life.  Zaionchkovsky often begins his stories with an event from the life of his character, but then drifts off at an angle to explore the nature of different aspects of Muscovite life.  Through the writer's tangential tales of people both real and imaginary (there's a lot of meta-fictional byplay going on here!), we get to learn about the hierarchy of supermarkets and who can afford them; the difficulties for career women in finding a suitable partner; the explosion of possibilities for those looking to make their fortune in real estate; and, of course, the changes brought about by the move from a Communist to capitalist system.

Understandably though, our writer often turns his sardonic eye on the literary scene, contrasting the Russian adoration of their cultural icons with the relative lack of interest in their contemporary equivalents.  The protagonist is apparently fairly unsuccessful, despite being relatively well known (when a couple of dozen people turn up to one of his readings, the surprised organisers put it down to a cancellation elsewhere by a famous foreign writer!), and his struggle to scrape together enough money for a decent meal is ironically played out against a backdrop of museums for minor classic writers...

Part of the problem is that Moscow is now a modern city (in parts at least), moving at the pace of the industrialised world, and the writer has not quite acclimatised to that change.  In a world of professional publishers and gleaming boardrooms, he is decidedly out of place, as shown by a meeting he attends after being persuaded to write a book for a company:
"While the sugar was still dissolving in my cup, I managed to make the acquaintance of a lady designer and a lady marketologist (both shorn to match their boss's cropped style), a young culturologist, an old gastrologist and a representative of a PR agency on friendly terms with Griddle (a middle-aged man with manicured nails).  Noticing that they had all come to the meeting with folders, I felt guilty because I hadn't brought anything apart from my indigestion tablets."
It is little surprise that he is unable to come to terms with the idea of literature as product...

While the writer talks a lot about the city around him, there is one personal undercurrent to the collection.  In the very first story we hear about Tamara, and it gradually becomes clear that despite the apparent friendship the writer has with his successor, Dmitry Pavlovich, and the nonchalance with which the Muscovites chalk up their failed marriages, the loss of Tamara has affected him more deeply than he will openly admit.  It is this feeling of hurt, a sore spot which occasionally reemerges from under the dry humour the writer uses to cover it up, which adds a depth to the book it may have otherwise lacked.

Happiness is Possible isn't a perfect read.  The collection of vaguely-connected tales can pall after a while, and I occasionally found it a little repetitive.  I probably read it a little quickly though, and I think it's a book which should be read slowly, the reader dipping in for a chapter or two every now and then, rather than racing through it in a couple of days.  The little pieces are made to be read and reflected on, as there's probably a lot more there than first meets the eye.  In some ways, the book is more like a short-story collection - I would certainly hesitate to call it a novel...

Returning then to the the bold statement the title makes, Zaionchkovsky's little slices of Moscow life do seem to back up the idea that despite the problems living in a modern society brings, happiness is indeed possible.  But while this is true in general, is it true for our poor love-lorn writer friend?  To find that out, I'm afraid you'll just have to read the book ;)

* I received an electronic review copy of Happiness is Possible from the publisher.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Eleven

It seems as if we've been on our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize journey for a good while now, but there's many a book to review yet before we sleep.  Today we're returning to Germany for a little book all about a certain woman.  Her name?  Well...

Alice by Judith Hermann (translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, I read the original German version)
What's it all about?
Alice is a novel (of sorts) consisting of five loosely-connected stories set at five different points in the life of Alice, a young(ish) German woman.  The five stories are given the names of five different men - and with good reason.  Where many writers would have chosen to explore Alice's character through her relationships with the gentlemen in question though, Hermann has a slightly different take on proceedings.  You see, in each of the sections, the man whose name graces it is destined to die...

This book then is about how Alice copes with the loss of these men - ex-boyfriends, family friends, relatives, partners.  As Stu quipped, there's very much a feeling of the Angela Lansburys about poor Alice, with death stalking any man she becomes acquainted with.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one friend may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose five looks like downright negligence...

Many of my fellow shadow panellists have taken this approach in their reviews of Alice, and about half-way through the collection I could see why.  By the middle of the third story, it all seemed a little familiar: another bedside, another man about to shuffle off this mortal coil, another final visit for Alice to make...  As I moved onto the fourth of the stories, one dealing with the death of an uncle (before Alice had even been born), I was mentally resigning myself to writing a politely-negative review.

However, by the end of the last story, it had all come together.  While the first three stories did blend into each other a little, the fourth represented a turning point in the novel.  For the first time, Alice appeared to be pro-active, taking control of her life and actively seeking out information about her dead uncle.  When it came to the final part, it felt as if this is what the book had been building to; a series of lesser upsets helping Alice to cope with a final, major loss.

It also helped that the final chapter brought together the loose ends, repeat performances from some of the minor characters from the first four stories assisting in connecting the different stages of Alice's life.  The simple, elegant, descriptive language of the book is a metaphor for the clear thinking Alice becomes capable of in the final section.  While she seems a little lost and directionless earlier in the book, searching for a meaning to it all in the face of some pretty traumatic experiences, by the final story she appears to have recognised that life is actually about living, about noticing the things around you.  The extended description of her lazy morning at the swimming pool, the frequent mentions of flowers, the light, the smells...

There's something very Japanese about Alice, the subdued, implicit nature of the book making it hard to really understand, or sympathise with, the title character.  I can understand why many of the people I've spoken to about the book don't really like it, but I'm probably a little more invested than most given the time I spent in Germany - there's a lot here that's very familiar.  I've heard that this is not Hermann's best work; however, there's enough here for me to give her other books a try.  And that can't be a bad recommendation :)

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No.  On my list, it's currently about seventh (of twelve), and I can't see it staying there until the end of my longlist reading.  It never quite manages to achieve what it sets out to do, despite its elegance and poignancy.  It's one I'll probably read again at some point (and it persuaded me to buy one of her earlier books), but I was honestly surprised to see it make the shortlist.  As for my fellow shadow panellists - their reaction was somewhat stronger ;)

Will it go all the way?
Not if the opinions of my fellow panellists have anything to do with it!  While most of the books on the longlist have had both their supporters and detractors, Alice has probably been the one book that the crew has universally found dull.  We were all dumbstruck that Scenes from Village Life didn't make the cut and disappointed that Next World Novella is no longer in the running.  I was very pleased that Please Look After Mother didn't get through, but I have a strong feeling that Alice is the token female, German, short story entry, knocking off three categories in one short book.  It will not win.

Probably ;)

Another one polished off, only four more to go.  Next time, we're staying in Europe, and it's going to be huge.  I mean *huge*.  No, I mean ***HUGE***!

You know what's coming...

Monday, 16 April 2012

Darling, you've got to let me know...

While most of the books which made it onto the shortlist of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize are relatively slender works, several of the longlisted titles (not least the bookshelf-threatening Parallel Stories) were longer, injury-inducing tomes.  Sadly for those of you with physical frailties, next year may have more of the same - that is, if today's book is anything to go by ( I was lucky enough to get a review e-copy from the publisher though!).  Fans of translated fiction should start exercising those arm and neck muscles...

Andrés Neuman's Traveller of the Century (Pushkin Press), translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, is another wonderful example of fiction in translation.  The novel, running to around 600 pages, introduces us to Hans, a young translator who spends the night in a town somewhere in central Germany.  Originally planning to stay in Wandernburg for only one night, Hans somehow allows his departure to be delayed time and time again, seemingly unable to leave the strange, slightly-confusing town.

The longer he stays, the more people he comes to know, and the harder it is to motivate himself to leave.  Through his new friend Álvaro, a Spanish expatriate, he is invited to attend a literary salon, and it is here that he meets the hostess, Sophie Gottlieb, a lover of poetry and a beauty of marriageable age.  A perfect match, you might think: were it not for the handsome Rudi von Wilderhouse - Sophie's fiancé...

While the relationship between Hans and Sophie is at the heart of Traveller of the Century, there is a lot more to it than that.  Besides the added intrigue of the hunt for a sexual predator lurking in the streets of Wandernburg, an important chunk of the novel is spent at the Gottlieb's literary salon each Friday, where Hans and Álvaro take on the formidable intellect of Professor Mietter.  In the midst of a small group of selected citizens, our friends debate topics of literature and philosophy, war and peace, government and commerce, in a way which seems strangely modern and familiar.  For those whose eyes glaze over at the mention of philosophy though, there is always the mute, passionate subtext of Hans' and Sophie's attraction to be diverted by.

One of the more intriguing characters is the city itself, as it is not named Wandernburg for nothing.  In the introduction, it is described as having no fixed boundaries, shifting between Saxony and Prussia (both politically and physically!), but there is much more to the city's elusive nature.  When Hans walks around the city streets, he invariably finds himself lost, shops, inns and streets popping up where least expected.  Try as he might, the young translator is unable to take the same route twice -which must be a metaphor of some sort, surely? ;)

The name Kafka is never far from the reader's mind during the first pages of the novel, but the connection with the Latin American magical realism movement is the overriding feeling you have the longer the story goes on.  However you want to describe it, the fact is that Hans feels a strange sort of attraction to the town:
"I don't know what it is about this city,... it's as if it won't let me leave." p.78

If it all seems a bit too high-brow though, rest assured that the novel is very readable and often funny.  From the Thompson-Twins-inspired father-and-son detective duo of Lieutenant Gluck and Lieutenant Gluck ("Dad...", "Call me Lieutenant.") , to the cameo appearance of two businessmen in a bar (showing the author's love of football...), Neuman cleverly breaks up the deeper passages with some lighter moments.  When Hans and Álvaro are drinking (which they, and many others, frequently do), Hans quips in Wildean fashion:
"What time is it? What! said Álavaro astonished.  Do you mean to tell me you don't wear a watch?  The fact is, I don't see any point in watches, said Hans, they never give me the time I want." p.119

In the end though, we always return to Hans and Sophie, star-crossed lovers caught in an impossible situation.  The literary salon discusses Goethe's Young Werther at one point, a parallel which is not lost on the reader (although in the hands of a Latin writer, events are always likely to end up differently...).  The admirable Sophie, a wonderfully drawn-out character, is torn between her higher and base instincts, her duties and desires.  This is even foreshadowed in her name: while her father's family name is Gottlieb, indicating love of God, her mother's maiden name was Bodenlieb, a slightly more earthy kind of desire...

As the year passes by, Hans becomes increasingly attached to Sophie, despite being unlikely to ever win her.  The traveller has become rooted to the spot, a situation which both pleases and repels him.  In the end, he has a decision to make, and (unlike in the song) his lady love is not going to make the decision for him.  It's up to Hans to decide - should he stay or should he go...

All in all, an excellent book, and one which could easily jostle for position with all the fine translated fiction I've been reading recently.  However, there is one more angle I'd like to look at, and that is the focus on translation.  Hans is a literary translator, converting poetry from several European languages into new German versions, and Caistor and Garcia, the translators of Traveller of the Century, must have had a lot of fun with the poems Hans had to work with.  I thought it was an excellent translation, a smooth fluent read, and it was extremely entertaining to see the process of translation rendered within a novel.  Perhaps a passage from the text best describes the effect a good translation can have on a work of art:
"But if it is well done, if the job of interpretation gives the right result, the text may even be improved, or at least become another poem as worthy as its predecessor.  And I would go further - I think it is the translator's duty to offer the reader an authentic poem in his own language precisely in order to remain faithful to the poetic nature of the original." p.351
And so say all of us :)

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Ten (Shortlist Reactions)

Well, the cut has finally been made, and nine of the contenders have pulled up (or fallen...) at the final fence.  However, there are six books still striding on in the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize stakes ;)  The official panel (i.e. not us!) has read, reread, perused and deliberated, and the following list is the fruit of those mental (and, in the cases of 1Q84 and Parallel Stories, possibly physical) labours.  Without further ado (links are to my reviews)...

Official Shortlist for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Of course, another small group of people has been reading the same collection of books, and yesterday we on the Shadow Panel announced our own shortlist!  The Shadow Panel consists of our esteemed chair, Stu, along with Rob, Mark, Gary, Simon, Lisa and me :)  I know you're just itching to compare the two lists, so..

Shadow Panel Shortlist for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

I have to say that I much prefer our list...  When I saw the first (leaked) reports, apart from the two Italian books, only the nationalities were mentioned, so I assumed the German book was Next World Novella and the Israeli book was Scenes from Village Life.  Once I actually saw the full list, I was astonished that it was in fact Alice and Blooms of Darkness that got the nod.  The two books I mentioned are huge losses, and the cutting of the Oz book, in particular is a major surprise - at least for us...

For all the Shadow Panel's reviews, please have a look at the special page on Mark's blog, which has all the various thoughts we have posted so far.  Now though, it's time to polish off a few more books and a few more reviews, and to gather my thoughts for when the business of choosing a winner arrives.  Fun times ahead :)

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Nine (Shortlist Time!)

We're now very close to the day when the field is finally thinned out in the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  Of the fifteen proud steeds who cantered onto the longlist, only six will clear the final fence separating them from the shortlist, ready to gallop for all they're worth over the final furlong, hoping to cross the line with their noses in front.  Whether this metaphor has the writers or the translators as jockeys, I'm not quite sure - I'll let you decide :)

Anyway, so far I've managed to get through twelve of the fifteen longlisted titles (including the monstrous Parallel Stories and 1Q84), posted reviews on ten and read several opinions on all of them, so I'm fairly confident in my opinions.  Which will in no way match up with those of the real jury, or even those of my fellow shadow panellists...

Today I'll be announcing two shortlists: one made up of the books I think deserve to make the cut; the other composed of the titles I suspect the real judges will opt for.  Each of the lists will consist of five of the twelve I've read, plus one of the three I haven't (based mainly on what other people have said about them).  So, without further ado...

Tony's Preferred Shortlist

Tony's Predicted Shortlist

As you can see, three of the books appear on both lists, so expect those to be the ones that miss the cut ;)  Was I right?  Well, we'll soon find out...  My next post will have the real shortlist, and (as if that wasn't exciting enough) I'll also be comparing it to the six chosen by our collective Shadow Panel!  The finish post is in sight...

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Eight

Today's stop on our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize tour is in Paris, where we'll spend a few hours (and decades) in the company of some interesting - at times infuriating - people.  Allons-y...

Hate: A Romance by Tristan Garcia (translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein)
What's it all about?
Hate is set in Paris at the end of the twentieth century, stretching into the start of the twenty-first, and revolves around four people, very different but each important in the era described.  Gay culture has taken over both the nightlife and the cultural literary scene of the French capital, and Dominique (Doumé) Rossi is one of its chroniclers, a journalist with an eye for the Zeitgeist.  Another keeping a close eye on things is academic and cultural philosopher Jean-Michel Leibowitz (Leibo), who later starts an affair with one of his students, the narrator of the book, Elizabeth (Liz) Lavallois.

It takes the introduction of a fourth character, however, to light the touch paper and put a bomb under the whole story, and that is the indecipherable, incoherent, undeconstructable William (Willy) Miller.  Willy comes to Paris without any real hope or plans, but his open personality and good looks help him to make an impression on the gay scene, eventually leading to him getting together with Dominique.  The shy young man from the provinces grows into a spokesperson for a generation, and his relationship with Rossi raises his profile even further.

This romance occurs just when a shockwave is resounding throughout western society.  A new, incurable illness is cutting a swathe through the youth of the eighties, and it appears to be almost exclusively targeting homosexuals.  As Rossi, scared by the deaths of many of his contemporaries, champions a safe-sex crusade, Willy (by now separated from Dominique) has very different ideas: for him it's time to enjoy life and stand up against the fear-mongering older generation.  This pits the former lovers against each other in a very public battle: from romance, comes hate...

After reading several reviews and chatting to other bloggers about this book, I was actually dreading reading it.  I had shelved my original plan to buy a French copy and reserved an English-language version from the library instead.  Then I sat down to read it... and I loved it.  I read it over two days, but I actually finished it well within twenty-four hours, rushing back to it whenever I had the opportunity.

There's nothing amazing about the actual writing (there's an awful lot of dialogue and narrative moving the action along), but it is a fascinating story, cleverly written and full of references to world and national events of the eighties and nineties.  Anyone who has had to suffer through literary theory classes will recognise a lot of the names mentioned as Garcia namechecks just about anyone who's anyone in the French cultural scene.  Derrida?  Yep.  Foucault?  Best mates.  Bourdieu?  Idiot.  Et cetera, et cetera...

A lot of the focus is on the way a cultural minority was able to subvert mainstream society and marginalise the majority.  Through Leibo, his pop philosopher, Garcia expounds on la pensée unique, the common thought, where society follows ideas blindly.  Leibo irritatedly says:
"You can't pretend that stuff is somehow 'progressive' just because some minority latches onto it, or because it's somehow of the people, or because it's popular."  p.71
It's a little ironic because part of me thinks that he could very well have been talking about the stir caused by the book he appears in ;)

Instead though it's Willy he's talking about, infuriating, ubiquitous, seemingly indestrucible and very much larger than life.  From his obscure origins, Willy rises to the top of Paris' gay subculture, eventually eclipsing his former lover and attempting to destroy him.  He is dumb, but profound, an idiot able to silence intellectuals with a withering burst of invented psychobabble.  Beautiful, narcissistic, self-absorbed and utterly selfish at times, gregarious and funny at others, Willy is a symbol, an icon of the commercialised, packaged society.

Unique as Willy is though, I couldn't help thinking of a character from another novel, another rebel without a cause, a plan or a pot to piss in.  He's a very similar character to Dean Moriarty, Kerouac's archetypal slacker from his novel On the Road.  Moriarty was the symbol of his age, just as Willy is a representative of his, but where we leave the selfish Moriarty at the end of Kerouac's novel, having only seen a part of his story, here we get to witness the whole narrative arc, the rise and inevitable fall.

One difference between the two though is that Willy eventually finds a mission in his conflict with Dominique.  More than a fight between exes, this is a clash of generations, a rebellion by the youth against their fathers.  While Rossi wants to prevent those who have followed him from making the same mistakes he and his friends did, Willy rejects his advice, insisting that he is only trying to validate himself and make his experiences seem special.  Everyone fucks up.  Nothing is learned.  Get out of our way.  Everyone's going to die anyway, so a condom won't save you...

Just as the reader might start to tire of the petty power games, however, the story turns, and we are confronted with something more important, something upsetting.  We begin to see the effects of the bareback, free-love agenda Willy espoused, in the shape of people facing an agonising death.  After the fun and games, Garcia confronts us with the true cost of Willy's selfish actions...

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
At the start of writing this review, I was thinking possibly, but having looked back at what I've written... How can I fail to say yes?  There are flaws, the major one being the narrator, Liz.  She is a weak, contrived character, there solely to connect the three men and move the story along.  It would probably have been difficult to improve her role without radically restructuring the way the novel is set up, but it's still a black mark against an otherwise excellent book.  I've already mentioned that the writing isn't anything special, but Hate isn't about that, it's about the ideas and the story - and they are excellent.  There's so much more I could have written about, and the book is only 272-pages long...

Yep, I'd put it in.

Will it make the shortlist?
It's a possibility.  I'm sure the panellists will enjoy the meta-textual aspects (unless it all gets a little too claustrophobic and close to home).  However, I'm also aware that not everyone has liked this book, and it's a novel that may be looking for the right reader.  I was one, but you can never tell whether the IFFP people will be...

Well, that went on for longer than I'd expected ;)

Not many more to go now - I'll see you next time for another stop on our journey towards the announcement of the winner.  In fact, by the time my next review is posted, we will already know which of the books have made it onto the shortlist.  Exciting times are ahead...

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Seven

Today's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize review is of the second of the two Israeli books on the longlist.  However, this one is not set in modern-day Israel, but rather in eastern Europe, during a very familiar period of world history.  A warning before we set off - today's story is not one for claustrophobes...

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld (translated by Jeffrey M. Green)
What's it all about?
The setting is a small Ukrainian town during the Second World War, a place where the many Jewish inhabitants are preparing for the worst.  As the German occupying troops slowly begin to empty the town of Jews, parents attempt to smuggle their children into the mountains, where, hidden with peasant families, they will be relatively safe.

This is to be Hugo's fate too; however, unable to find a trustworthy companion for her son, Hugo's mother decides instead to put the life of her eleven-year-old in the hands of her good friend Mariana - a woman who happens to be a prostitute.  Instead of hiding out in the mountains then, our young friend spends the closing days of World War Two hidden in a cupboard at the local brothel.  Will he be discovered by the Germans?  More importantly, will he escape from the experience with his morals intact...

The majority of Blooms of Darkness is spent with Hugo, either in his cupboard or in Mariana's room, and this lends the book the claustrophobic atmosphere I mentioned at the start of the post.  Hugo initially sees Mariana as a sort of ersatz mother, but the longer he stays, the more the relationship changes, the unreal isolation corrupting their feelings for each other.

This relationship between Hugo and Mariana will probably cause problems for many readers of Blooms of Darkness, and rightly so.  It's thoroughly plausible, and the more we learn about Mariana (her alcoholism, her terrible childhood) and the terrifying environment the two of them are existing in, the more we understand why and how things turn out the way they do.  Mariana, although physically a woman, is just as immature as Hugo.  However, it's still disturbing, and were the genders to be reversed, there would probably be a lot of very angry readers.
My main issue with the book is very different though.  In short, it's incredibly dull.  I know it's not the done thing to criticise anything connected to the holocaust, but this really has little to recommend it.  It's a doughy mish-mash of various ideas and stories (the tart with a heart, the cupboard of The Diary of Anne Frank, a doomed attempt to flee, reminiscent of Tess of the D'Urbervilles) which left me wondering what it was really all about.

In short then, not one I'd recommend.  There are a million books out there describing the atrocities of the wars in Europe, and while Blooms of Darkness does take the reader into a relatively under-described region, there's nothing in the novel which makes it stand out amongst its peers and competitors.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Erm, sorry, not this one.  It's not terrible, but I've read too many better books recently.  The translation isn't bad, and any limitations in the language are probably due to the original style.  There are some moving moments towards the end of the book, but it would be very hard not to have any in a book with this setting.  There just isn't enough there for me.

Will it make the shortlist?
Probably not.  There will be people who like this, for the setting, the unfolding relationship between Hugo and Mariana and the melodramatic end.  I can't see the judges elevating this above many of the other longlisted titles though; it's too average.

Then again, I said pretty much the same about Please Look After Mother...

That's all for today :)  Join me for the next leg of the journey, when we'll be hitting Paris - Vive la différence!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Six

It's time to leave Europe once more on our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize travels as our next stop is Israel.  The weather will be fairly nice for our visit, and we'll be enjoying a short stay in a small village and getting to know some new friends.  Sometimes it's nice to just slow down and relax :)

What's it all about?
Amos Oz's Scenes from Village Life, translated by Nicholas de Lange, is a series of elegantly written sketches about the lives of people in an Israeli village outside Tel Aviv.  Each of the first seven tales features one of the inhabitants of the village of Tel Ilan, but most of the characters appear elsewhere, popping up in supporting roles in someone else's story.  These seven stories, taken as a whole, give us an overview of what life in the village (against the backdrop of certain political and military issues) is like.  However, the eighth tale, an extremely different story to the others, makes the reader look at matters in a new light...

In one way, the village appears to be an idyllic, pleasurable place to live.  People amble around its streets, walking through the memorial garden, waving to neighbours as they pass.  However, beneath the peaceful surface, things are not quite right.  Each of the protagonists has secrets they are keeping from the outside world, feelings they are trying to deny themselves.  Without revealing anything over-dramatic, Oz nonetheless depicts a place full of sad, haunted people.  Whether it's the mayor, wandering the streets looking for his wife, certain he won't find her, the doctor hoping her beloved nephew will arrive for a visit, or the lovelorn teenager trying to make a connection with the local librarian, each of the characters seems incredibly lonely.

Part of the beauty of the book is the care the writer takes in creating these characters.  The reader can see the villagers as they pass by thanks to the individual traits Oz sketches out.  Benny Avni, the mayor of Tel Ilan, leaning into the wind as he roams the streets; the 85-year-old former politician Pesach Kedem, his head bent almost at right-angles.  It also helps that the translation is excellent, virtually flawless, simply a joy to read.

If the characters are well drawn though, then the village is even more so.  Just as the various characters stroll in and out of view, so too do the local landmarks.  The memorial garden near the town hall, the centre of Tel Ilan, appears in most of the stories, its park bench playing a significant role in a couple of them.  This is also true of the water tower, a structure about which we learn more as the book progresses, becoming less abstract and more detailed with each mention.  It's tempting to surmise that only from the top of the tower, the highest point in Tel Ilan, can we get a real overview of what is happening in the book...

The information we are given about the town may even explain the malaise affecting the people.  Tel Ilan, an easy drive from Tel Aviv, is slowly becoming a trendy getaway for city folk, a place to shop for local artwork and mingle at the weekly markets.  For the locals though, this means a shift from the isolated village life, and the slow death of the old farming traditions.  While most people benefit from the changes financially, it seems that the villagers are struggling to adapt mentally to the new reality.  They have more money, but is it at the expense of something more important?

Of course, this is Israel, so there are other, unavoidable, matters at play.  Oz doesn't stress the realities of the conflict in the Middle East, but the issue is constantly in the background.  In a few of the stories, shots ring out in the night, unexplained and largely ignored; the water tower, with a bunker at the base, turns out to be marred by bullet holes; in the penultimate story, Singing, the only one to even remotely address the political issues, planes scream over the village, disturbing the evening entertainment unrolling below.

And the final story of the collection, In a faraway place at another time, simply adds to this feeling of uncertainty.  We have no real indicator as to whether it takes place in the future or the past - all we know is that it depicts a society of greedy, selfish, degraded people, and it's not pleasant.  What does it mean?  No idea.  It's a very depressing note to end the collection on though...

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Definitely.  I loved this book; I probably enjoyed it more than any other I've read so far, and it's one I'd like to read again (and possibly have in my personal library).  The interconnected tales and the understated sadness pervading them hit a chord with me, and Nicholas de Lange's wonderful translation doesn't do it any harm either.  Brilliant :)

Will it make the shortlist?
I'll say yes for this one.  Most of the other reviews I've seen have been extremely positive, and Oz is a very well-known writer, one who will already have many backers.  It's a little different from many of the other contenders, and I think that is a positive.  Also, if the panel are looking for a non-European book for the shortlist, I'm pretty sure that this is it...

Another one down, many more to come.  That's all for today, but don't despair - I'll be back with another slice of IFFP longlist delight very soon ;)