Tuesday 30 October 2012

Books and Dreams

From the first of November, things will be going all Germanic around these parts with the start of German Literature Month.  However, before that all starts, I just have time to bring you one last taste of Iceland, and a wonderful one it is too :)

Gyrðir Elíasson's Stone Tree, translated by Victoria Cribb, is another short story collection that the wonderful Comma Press were kind enough to send me a copy of.  Unlike the others I've reviewed though, Stone Tree's offerings are more akin to flash fiction - the 116 pages contain 25 different stories.  These vignettes work superbly though, describing slices of life, glimpses of a moment in time like a photograph, or a video lasting but a few brief seconds.

Not a lot happens in some of the stories, but the reader is still intrigued as to why events unfold (and are set up) as they are.  For example, in A House of Two Stories, two men living on different floors in the same house translate different books by the same author - and that's it.  Elíasson's skill lies in sketching this out in a few hundred words in such a way that the reader feels that there is something more to the story than this and is engaged enough to wonder what exactly that could be.

The literary theme is one that runs through the collection (a comforting one for bibliophiles like myself!), but the stories can often contain subtle warnings about the danger of becoming obsessed with literature.  In Book After Book, a story which may hit too close to home for many readers, a man wanders about his house aimlessly, picking up some of the many books he possesses.  Some are in the fridge, some are crammed into boxes, others share the bathroom cabinet with prescription medicine...  While he is certainly not lacking for reading material, the man's world is eerily flat and empty.  Perhaps it's no coincidence that I took sixty books to the local charity shop the day after reading this story...

Readers may get a mention, but one of the central ideas of Stone Tree is the writer, a solitary figure seeking time alone in an attempt (usually a vain one) to squeeze some words out onto the page.  In several of the stories (e.g. The Summerbook, The Flight to Halmstad), this search for necessary tranquillity comes at the cost of relationships, with marriages slowly disintegrating in the absence of human contact.  In others though (e.g. The Writing Room, The Bus), the writer's solitude allows him to connect with something outside his usual world, his dreams bleeding uncannily into his waking existence.

If this all sounds a little dull and arty, rest assured that Elíasson is not without a dry, laconic sense of humour.  There are many gems scattered throughout his stories, such as:
"On the little table beside the bed an ancient coffee maker boiled and bubbled, producing a strange, black viscous fluid that we decided by tacit agreement to refer to simply as coffee, although in reality it was something altogether different."
p.48, The Writing Room (Comma Press, 2008)
Or, perhaps you would prefer the writer's attempt to describe beautiful scenery:
"It was past midday when their car pulled up beside the houses of Saksun.  The sky was overcast but no rain was falling here and the mountains were free from fog.  Saksun is an extraordinary, romantic place.  It would have been the perfect setting if Keats, Shelley and Byron had ever needed a retirement home."
p.81, Watershed
Scattered jokes like these help to prevent the stories falling into a humdrum, predictable pattern - and also keep the reader on their toes :)

With such short, mystery-laden pieces of prose, it will come as little surprise that Elíasson is also a poet, and in an interview published back when Iceland was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, he admits his tendency towards 'anorexic prose', an influence of his poetic writing.  This poetic side comes out in a comment a character makes in his story The Carpentry Woodshop, after the death of his sister:
"Later, when things were almost back to normal, Dad said that I should have carried on and joined him in the carpentry business.  I answered that two carpenters in the family were enough, and that I would take up woodwork again if he could build a stairway to heaven.  He said he couldn't do that.  I said in that case I would weave one out of words."
p.78, The Carpentry Woodshop
Of course, even the most poetic and lyrical of writers is nothing in a foreign language without the help of a good translator, and Victoria Cribb is one of the best.  I have praised her work before (she is the translator into English of Sjón's work), and even if Elíasson has a very different style - dare I say it, a little less flamboyant... -, it still comes across well in the foreign language.  I'm not sure if Cribb has translated any other Icelandic authors, but I'm almost inclined to seek them out and read them just on her name alone :)

All in all then, Stone Tree is a wonderful collection of stories, a fitting end to this stage of my journey around Icelandic literature.  Before I finish up though, I just want to look at one more story, one which I came back to time after time.  Chain Reaction is just three pages long, yet it is full of hidden meanings, a puzzle which the reader longs to crack.  It's another of the stories which centre on a writer at a retreat, where the protagonist, hearing the sound of chains in the attic, leaves the house and goes for a walk, ending up sitting by a pool.

So far, so prosaic.  However, it's the detail which fascinates me so much in this story.  The writer flees immediately he hears the sound of chains - does he have a guilty conscience?  In leaving the house, he locks himself out, the keys are still inside - is there a deeper significance to this?  The book he (inevitably) takes with him is a biography of Houdini...  As he approaches the pool, he compares a cave to the one where Merlin was stranded after losing his powers - an allegory for writer's block?  The name of an old girlfriend pops into his head, and a light immediately comes on in a building in the distance.  And I haven't even mentioned his dream yet...

You cannot help but admire the way Elíasson almost casually throws all these elements together in fewer words than it has taken me to review his book.  Despite the brevity of the tales, these are not stories that you speed through; with all the dense imagery, the reader needs to slow down and take heed of what is happening.  Rob, of Rob Around Books, a noted fan of the short story, wrote earlier this year about the way he always reads a short story twice, recommencing immediately after finishing the first read.  At the time I was, to put it mildly, a little dubious about this - however, this is pretty much what I did for the majority of the stories in Stone Tree.  And it works. 

Stone Tree is a great book.  Elíasson is an excellent writer.  This (as far as I am aware) is his only work in English.  More, please :)

Saturday 27 October 2012

There Goes The Fear Again (Let It Go...)

A hearty welcome to everyone joining me from Judith's Literary Blog Hop for this special giveaway post - please visit her page for a list of all the participants :)  As German Literature Month is just around the corner, I thought I'd use today's review to promote Caroline and Lizzy's wonderful event and highlight an excellent writer too.  Last year, I read Stefan Zweig's Schachnovelle (Chess) for the first German Lit Month, and it was one of my favourite books for the year, prompting me to rush out (metaphorically...) and order Angst (Fear) - only to leave it on my shelves for the best part of a year...

I'm making up for that oversight now, and after my review, I'll be giving you the chance to get a copy for yourself.  Oh, and don't worry if your German's not quite up to scratch; those lovely people at Pushkin Press, obsessed as they are by Herr Zweig, have a lovely English-language version of Fear, and I'll be giving away one of those too :)

Angst, like Schachnovelle, is a wonderful, psychological tale.  It's a relatively short work, but right from the first words, Zweig plunges us into the world of his hapless heroine:
"Als Frau Irene Wagner die Treppe von der Wohnung ihres Geliebten hinabstieg, packte sie mit einem Male wieder jene sinnlose Angst." p.9 (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011)
"As Irene Wagner walked down the stairs from her lover's apartment, she was once again gripped by that pointless fear." ***
Irene Wagner is a wealthy married woman who has taken a lover to get out of the rut of her boring bourgeois existence, driven to the affair by the eventlessness of her life.  The thrill she initially experiences becomes the 'Angst', the 'fear', of the title, and her relationship becomes a series of brief moments of excitement and happiness, surrounded by long periods of crippling anxiety.

We enter Irene's life at a crucial point, as her world begins to crumble once she reaches the bottom of those stairs.  As she attempts to leave the building, a woman stops her, claiming to be a girlfriend that Irene's lover has cast off in favour of his new conquest.  Panicked and confused, Irene (hidden behind a veil) thrusts some money into the woman's hands and flees, hoping never to see her again.

Of course, it's not quite as simple as that.  The woman somehow finds Irene's house and threatens to tell the wealthier woman's husband about what has been going on.  Irene's initial plan of brazening it out crumbles immediately under the strength of her rival's onslaught, and she agrees to keep paying her blackmailer.  As the sums begin to get higher and higher, Irene doubts that she can continue to pay for much longer without her husband becoming suspicious.  And indeed, Herr Wagner is suddenly very concerned about his wife's strange behaviour...

Angst is another brilliant book, one I can recommend to anyone.  The theme of the novella is fear itself and the incapacitating effect it can have on the human mind and body.  Having been attracted into an affair by her humdrum everyday life and the perceived glamour of such a relationship, Irene is actually ill-suited to such an existence.  As Zweig says:
"...wie die meisten Frauen, wollte sie den Künstler sehr romantisch von der Ferne und sehr gesittet im persönlichen Umgang, ein funkelndes Raubtier, aber hinter den Eisenstäben der Sitte." p.25
"...like most women, she wanted the artist to be romantic from a distance and very civilised up close, a sparkling predator, but behind the iron bars of manners." ***
Irene feels trapped by her unchanging, tedious, bourgeois existence, but she soon comes to realise that this is the way she is meant to live her life (in fact, after the initial excitement of the affair, it becomes just another part of her weekly routine, slotted in between her visits to friends and in-laws...).  Once the affair is discovered though, this all changes, and she begins to suffer the consequences of her betrayal.  Zweig repeatedly shows us the physical effects of the psychological strain - cold chills, electric shocks of emotion, a racing pulse, fatigue...  But what is she actually afraid of?

Her mental torture has little to do with the outside world - Irene is her own torturer, subconsciously punishing herself for her indiscretions (well, this is Vienna, after all...).  The writer constantly repeats the words 'Angst' and 'unterirdisch' ('subterranean' or 'underground'), emphasising the psychological nature of her struggle, a struggle against herself.  Even in her dreams, she can find no respite from her emotions:
"Wie zwischen Kerkerwänden, müßig und erregt, ging sie auf und nieder in ihren Zimmern; die Straße, die Welt, die ihr wirkliches Leben waren, waren ihr gesperrt, wie der Engel mit feurigem Schwert stand dort die Erpresserin mit ihrer Drohung." p.42
"As if between prison walls, idle and excited, she walked up and down in her rooms; the street, the world, which were her real life, were barred to her - like the angel with the flaming sword, her blackmailer stood there with her threat."***
Her fear prevents her from confessing the affair to her husband, but as the story progresses, we begin to wonder if that is the whole truth.  Why is she doing this to herself?  What exactly is it that Irene is so afraid of?  The answers, to these and other questions, may well surprise you.  As well as being a wonderful psychological story, Angst has a great ending :)

*** All English translations in the text have been messed up by yours truly :)

So, on to the giveaway!  I will be giving away two copies of the book reviewed above, one in the original German and one in the 2010 Pushkin Press English-language version.  If you want to enter, simply:

  - comment on this post, stating whether you want the English or German version
  - write the word 'please' somewhere in your comment; manners are important :)
  - a contact e-mail would be nice, but I will endeavour to track down the winner!
  - commenting on my review is welcome but not obligatory ;)

This competition is open to all, but please note that I will be using The Book Depository to send this prize, so it is limited to people living in countries where The Book Depository has free delivery.  Entries will close at midnight (Melbourne time) on Wednesday, the 31st of October, 2012, and I'll be announcing the winner shortly after.  Good luck to all, and may your dreams be free of fear...

Thursday 25 October 2012

Whistling in the Dark

Were it not for the fact that in 2011 (like every year) I cheated by choosing a series, Shusaku Endo's Silence may well have been chosen as my book of the year - which makes it surprising that I still haven't got around to reading the other of his novels lying on my shelves (Deep River).  Luckily, the sound of another couple of books dropping through my metaphorical letter box recently (the real one's actually outside...), allowed me to renew my relationship with this Japanese writer, as Peter Owen Publishers were kind enough to send me copies of a couple of recently reissued novels.  While I wasn't expecting them to measure up to Silence, I was very keen to see what else Endo was capable of...

When I Whistle (translated by Van C. Gessel) introduces us to Ozu, a typical middle-aged salaryman on a business trip to the Kansai region of Japan.  This return to his childhood home evokes a feeling of nostalgia for the past, and he begins to relive certain pivotal experiences from his high-school days.  Anyone who is immediately reminded of the start of Haruki Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood is in very good company (i.e. me); however, where Murakami's book is a story which lives entirely in the past, Endo's novel is a two-track tale.

One strand follows Ozu down memory lane, describing his life after the arrival of a new student at his school, the enigmatic (and curiously-named) Flatfish.  The arrival of his new friend, an easy-going, smelly, oafish boy from the sticks, is a memorable event in Ozu's youth, not least because it leads to an encounter with a high-school girl, Aiko Azuma, with whom the two boys are doomed to be obsessed.

The other takes place in the present, about 30 years later, and is focused on Ozu's son Eiichi, a doctor at a Tokyo hospital.  Greedy, self-centred, and ruthlessly ambitious, Eiichi blames his underachieving father for his lack of progress in the highly nepotistic hospital environment.  To make up for his social shortcomings, he is prepared to sacrifice any morals he may have, ready to prescribe useless medicine and experiment on dying patients - which is when a certain Aiko Nakagawa is admitted to his hospital...

When I Whistle is an excellent novel, switching between the two stories to examine the differences in Japanese life in the 1940s and the 1970s.  We get to look back at what was and what might have been - before being shown what actually eventuated.  There is an overwhelming sense of a loss of a simpler way of life, one which may have been less comfortable, but perhaps more ethically right.

While Ozu is a decent, helpful soul, his son is, simply put, a nasty piece of work.  To say that he has dubious morals would be flattering him to the extreme.  In his quest to "make it" (whatever that may mean), he is prepared to keep quiet when necessary and betray colleagues when it will advance his career.  In a typical conversation with a patient, Eiichi shows how immune he has become to his way of life:
"Doctor, will I have to have surgery?"
"That's the reason you were hospitalized, isn't it?"
"If the surgery is successful, will I be able to work the way I used to?"
"Of course.  You can play golf and do anything you want."
Eiichi had got used to lying to cancer patients.  Lying to them was part of a doctor's job.
p.56 (Peter Owen, 2012)
Ozu's son is contrasted with another doctor, Tahara, who stands up to his bosses and is promptly sent packing to the provinces.  However, what would have been a fatal blow for Eiichi is actually a Godsend for his colleague.  The time away from Tokyo allows him to appreciate the freedom to work for his patients rather than himself - something Eiichi could never understand.

One of the more interesting aspects for me of this novel was the treatment of the war experience, something I haven't read too much about in Japanese literature.  Of course, it is seen from a very different, Asian perspective: 
 "The war spread to Europe the year Ozu and Flatfish entered their fourth year at the school.  Hostilities were no longer limited to the struggle between Japan and China." p.62
A statement which would probably bewilder those Europeans who assumed that the war started over in Poland!

Endo uses the earlier side of the story to set the scene of the war years: the hysterical patriotism of the early years, the constant drilling students had to go through each week, the going-away parties for new recruits...  Once the tide of the war turns though, we can also see the effects of the lengthy conflict, with food and clothes shortages.  Ironically, in the later half of the story, the children of the survivors seem unappreciative, to say the least, and are sick of hearing the old people talk about the war all the time...

What also comes through again and again in When I Whistle is the corruption of the powerful and the consequences of the Japanese tendency to blindly follow authority.  Officers beat new recruits half to death, and nobody bats an eyelid.  Surgeons prescribe useless drugs because of links to pharmaceutical companies, and the doctors nod and scurry off.  Those same doctors lie through their teeth to cancer patients, and the patients treat them like Gods.  At times it's all a little depressing.

This is a very different book to Silence, and while it never reaches the heights of Endo's masterpiece, it's still a very good novel.  With its setting in a Japan which has moved on from the war, it reminds me a little of Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter, another Japanese novel which doesn't need to emphasise its Japanese-ness (for want of a better word!).  However, it is also a trip down memory lane, allowing the reader to reflect on the price of the progress that has been made.  As Ozu returns to his old neighbourhood, lamenting the disappearance of his old train line and the beautiful pines surrounding his old school, we share his disappointment.  Change is not always for the better...

Monday 22 October 2012

The Law or Justice?

Sad as I was to reach the end of another rereading of Anthony Trollope's Palliser books, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  You see, last year I was lucky enough to win a Twitter competition run by Oxford World's Classics, and the prize was four more of Trollope's novels - and I was able to choose four that I hadn't previously read.  All of which means that there are plenty more Trollope reviews to look forward to in the months to come :)

The one I was most interested in reading was another of Trollope's bulky, two-volume, 800-page epics, Orley Farm.  In his Autobiography, the writer considered this one to be his best novel, and while that may be stretching things a little, it's certainly one of the better ones I've read.  The story revolves around a codicil to a will made twenty years before the main action, an addendum which leaves the titular farm to the baby boy of Sir Joseph Mason's second wife.  The old man's other children suspect that their step-mother has somehow been involved in the forgery of this document, but a court case clears her of any wrong-doing, and Lady Mason is free to claim the property and run it on behalf of baby Lucius until he comes of age.

Twenty years on, Lucius is an educated, intelligent (if somewhat grumpy) young man, and he has decided to turn his attention to farming his own land.  In the process, he antagonises one of his tenants, a lawyer who married the daughter of the attorney at the centre of the original court case - and a man who subsequently finds a document which casts a different light on the events of the past...

Court cases and mysteries have featured in other Trollope works I've read (Phineas Redux, The Three Clerks and The Eustace Diamonds are some which immediately spring to mind), but Orley Farm is a novel which is more closely concerned with the workings of the law than any other I've read.  Trollope himself talks about 'sensational' literature and compares his work with that of Wilkie Collins, but it is actually Dickens' Bleak House that we are most reminded of.  Like Bleak House, Orley Farm is a doorstopper of a book, peopled with a wide cast of personalities from all walks of life, set partially in London and partially in the provinces.

While Orley Farm is of similar length to Bleak House, it is, of course, the focus on the law and, in particular, the rather loose link between the law and justice, which connects the two novels.  Where Dickens criticised the archaic institutions which led to fortunes being squandered in legal fees, Trollope examines the gladiatorial trial system where winning is more important than finding out what actually happened.  The writer's dreams of barristers working together to uncover the truth sounds somewhat idealistic, but the alternative - trained bloodhounds savaging innocent, honest people in the hope of discrediting them and obscuring the truth - hardly sounds like justice either...

Besides the over-riding theme of law and justice though, what I enjoyed most about Orley Farm was the way in which the characterisation was a little less black-and-white than is often the case.  Lady Mason could easily be compared to Lizzie Eustace (The Eustace Diamonds), but she is a much more complex and nuanced figure than her pretty, young counterpart.  We learn more about her character as the novel progresses, making it just that little bit harder for us to judge her - and to decide if she really is guilty or not.

While there are the usual sweet, blushing maidens and nervous, but manly, suitors, even the romances in Orley Farm are more intriguing than usual.  A stay at a country house sets up two love triangles: sweet Madeleine Stavely is pursued by upstart lawyer Felix Graham and wealthy heir Peregrine Orme; Sophia Furnival, a barrister's daughter, catches the eye of both Augustus Stavely and our young friend Lucius Morris.  While in other Trollope books, both the ladies would be pure and chaste, and the preferred suitor would be obvious from the start, things are not quite so clear here.  All of the young men have their good and bad points, none really standing out, and as for Ms. Furnival - well, I'm not sure she's playing the courting game quite as she's supposed to...

All in all, Orley Farm is definitely one of Trollope's more ambitious books, and it deserves its high reputation.  However, I was left thinking that it could have been that little bit more impressive if Trollope had only been released from the restraints of the Victorian culture and his own conscience.  Despite the attempts at ambiguity, the ending has to be morally correct: the characters must look to God for forgiveness, the good are rewarded, and the nasty are (for the most part) punished.  It's what the people wanted at the time, but today it detracts a little from the more balanced tone that runs through the novel.

Still, it's not for me to pass judgement on Trollope's treatment of his creations; I'm not sure my version would have been any better really.  And this is the real moral of the story.  As easy-going Judge Stavely says:
"...judge not that you be not judged." Volume II, p.122
(Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
As Orley Farm shows, the danger in judging is that you're very apt to make mistakes...

Thursday 18 October 2012

Everything's Coming Up Roses

When I first started my bout of Icelandic reading, I asked for a few recommendations, and my readers were happy to oblige.  Aside from the usual suspects of Halldór Laxness and Sjón, a book which came up a few times was Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir's novel The Greenhouse, one of many Icelandic works published this year by Amazon Crossing.  The winner of several awards, both in Iceland and elsewhere in Europe, it seemed like a good way to continue my current obsession...

The Greenhouse (translated by Brian FitzGibbon) introduces us to 22-year-old Arnljótur Thórir, a young Icelander who is about to embark on an exciting journey into the unknown.  Having inherited a love of horticulture from his mother, Lobbi (as his father calls him) is all set to fly off to a new job in an unspecified European country, restoring a world-famous rose garden in a monastery.

While he is taking a trip into the unknown, what he is walking away from is a little clearer.  He is still getting over his mother's untimely death in a car crash a couple of years back and is leaving his over-protective father and his Autistic twin brother behind.  Oh yes, and there's the small matter of the result of a few hours of passion in the family greenhouse - his baby daughter, Flóra Sól...

After a slightly unfortunate (and painful) start, Lobbi embarks on a lengthy, unhurried journey to the rose garden, somewhere in the heart of Europe.  As he drives through forests and villages, meeting new people on the way, you start to wonder if he's ever going to get to his destination.  Once he arrives at the monastery, the pace continues to crawl, but that's a good thing - as Lobbi himself discovers, it's the journey, not the destination that counts.

The Greenhouse is very much a Bildungsroman, one in which our young friend takes time out from the world to look around and think about what it is he wants from life.  In leaving his home territory and transplanting himself (like the roses he takes along) into a foreign climate, Lobbi is forcing himself to confront his issues.  It's very much a step into the unknown, at times coming across as a bit of a fairy-tale, as he discovers small restaurants hidden in the woods and tries to fit into the world of the monks.

This all makes him reevaluate his situation, the new experiences helping him to compare his old life with the new one.  It's a very different environment to the harsh Icelandic landscape:
"Can a person who has been brought up in the heart of a thick dark forest, where one has to beat a path through multiple layers of trees just to take a letter to the post office, have any conception of what it's like to spend one's entire childhood waiting for a single tree to grow?" p.62 (Amazon Crossing, 2012)
Then, just as he is adapting to his role as a rose gardener, he receives an unexpected visitor...

I greatly enjoyed The Greenhouse; it's the kind of book ideal for a couple of afternoons lounging about somewhere warm and slowly making your way through the pages.  The writing (and translation) is excellent, and there's also a dry sense of humour underpinning the story, with Lobbi (and his red hair) the butt of many a subtle joke.

He's a typical 22-year-old, sexually charged to the point of distraction, but also fairly shy, meaning that he misses certain obvious signals from women (a running joke is that several people actually think he's gay...). He's also constantly cringing from comments people make about the child he fathered from what he calls "a half-night stand" - every time he shows a picture of the blonde baby to the dark-complexioned natives, he is told that she doesn't have enough hair... 

There's a lot to like about this book, but it's not perfect.  A twist about two-thirds of the way through threatens to turn an intriguing, slow-burning story into a twee piece of chick-lit, but luckily the writer manages to keep the sugar to a minimum and comes up with a resolution to the story which works and satisfies the reader.  Still,it does feel like a bit of a girly book at times.

Nevertheless, The Greenhouse is a novel that most people will enjoy, literary enough to intrigue but with a character the reader cares about.  The man we see at the end of the 260 pages is very different to the immature youth we began the novel with; and if his future isn't quite settled, we can be sure that he's on the right path.  Everything (literally) is coming up roses :)

Monday 15 October 2012

A Little Soul...

It's not often I get unsolicited books in the post, and ones I want are even rarer, but a couple of weeks ago I was very happy with the contents of my letter box.  Someone from MacLehose Press had obviously decided that I might be interested in one of their new releases, French writer Jérôme Ferrari's Where I Left My Soul.  And do you know what?  They were very right :)

Where I Left My Soul (translated by Geoffrey Strachan) is set in Algiers over three days in 1957 during the Algerian struggle for independence.  Capitaine André Degorce, a career soldier who survived spells in both Buchenwald and a Vietnamese re-education camp, has made a major breakthrough in his attempts to eradicate the Algerian resistance organisation.  Tahar, the leader of the group, has finally been found, meaning that the shadowy network operating in the city is on its last legs.

Despite the atrocities committed by both sides, Degorce treats his captive with respect, observing the niceties of a conventional war.  However, not everyone feels this way.  Lieutenant Horace Andreani, a young soldier who grew to admire Degorce during their shared time in Vietnam, believes that the enemy deserves no mercy - and when that enemy happens to be the leader of them all, nothing will prevent justice from being served...

The book alternates between Andreani's retrospective messages to his former captain - letters written at a distance of many years, filled with scorn and disgust for Degorce's weakness - and an account of the events as they happened over the three days, following Degorce as he tries to reconcile his actions with his sense of honour as a soldier.  While Andreani's accusations, surging, flowing, venomous tirades of both love and hate, show no doubt about the validity of his actions, Degorce is less fortunate.  He is portrayed as a man plagued by doubt, depressed and (more importantly) deprived of the faith he needs to keep him going.

The book is beautifully written (and translated).  In addition to the poetic vitriol spouted by Andreani, we are treated to clear, haunting images of Degorce's past experiences.  We see the brutal torture in his Algiers station, the mud and sickness of the Vietnamese re-education camps, his own torture at the hands of the Germans...  The experiences are horrible, frightening - the prose is excellent.

Where I Left My Soul is, at heart, a story of how torture leaves its mark on the torturer.  Degorce was able to survive his own incarceration relatively intact, but when the tables are turned, and he is the one attempting to extract information through unsavoury methods, he cracks.  The process is dehumanising, and he loses his faith, not only in God, but also in everyday life, finding himself unable to determine whether what he is doing is right or wrong:
"For I have also learned that evil is not the opposite of good: the frontiers between good and evil are confused, they blend into one another and become impossible to tell apart in the bleak grey light that covers everything and that is what evil is."
p.153 (MacLehose Press, 2012) 
Somewhere along the way, Degorce has left his soul behind; if only he knew where... 

It's easy to sit and judge the two main characters, Andreani with his brutal attitude of the ends justifying the means and Degorce with his hypocritical treatment of a man who is a mass murderer, but I wouldn't like to be in either position.  When it comes to war and torture (as Degorce himself remarked above), right and wrong are very difficult to tell apart.  Is it more important to avoid being brought down to the level of our enemies, or is ensuring final victory at all costs better than avoiding bloodshed?

Of course, there's a reason why a book like Where I Left My Soul has special resonance today.  While it is a novel which covers the struggle for independence in North Africa, there are obvious parallels with countless wars and uprisings of modern times.  Anyone who finds themself in a situation like that of Degorce, attempting to defeat terrorists, will have to confront these moral dilemmas on a daily basis.  But then, it's not always clear who the real terrorists are...

Where I Left My Soul is a fairly short book, but it's one that packs a punch and leaves a lasting impression.  Despite being set in a fixed place and time, it's actually a work which discusses an ever-present issue.  As Andreani says:
"Remember this, mon capitaine... What has been played out in your life has already been played out on similar stages an incalculable number of times, and the millennium just beginning will offer nothing new.  It is no secret." p.25
It's all just a little bit of history repeating...

Thursday 11 October 2012

Don't forget the Hawthorns...

I've climbed a few literary mountains in my time (Ulysses, War and Peace, Don Quixote, A Suitable Boy, Buddenbrooks...), but I always thought that the one I was working towards, a more literal literary mountain, was Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), a thousand-page monster to be read in German.  However, I've come to realise that I'm actually in the middle of a far more ambitious project, one which will probably take me a good while to complete...

Last year, I read Du côté de chez Swann (Swann's Way), the first part of Marcel Proust's seven-volume epic, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).  It was my first encounter with Proust and his masterpiece, and it was certainly, ahem, an experience.  For those of you who have never tried his work, it's a fairly difficult job to describe how it reads.  Simply put, this is not writing for those who enjoy plot-driven novels (or anyone who likes things to, well, actually happen over the course of a book).

Sadly, I was in the middle of one of my infrequent injury-related blogging slumps at the time, so I didn't actually review the book.  However, I do recall posting a summary in four tweets, which went something like this:
Part One - Man remembers his childhood in the country.  Eats a cake and has flashbacks.
Part Two - Walks in the countryside, long descriptions of churches. Hawthorns, don't forget the hawthorns...
Part Three - Long, seemingly irrelevant, story about a family friend's love-life: am assured this will eventually become relevant. 
Part Four - Boy plays with pretty girl in Paris.  She goes on holiday, he's too sick to travel.  Fin :(
At which point, most people will be looking for something a little more action-packed to peruse...

Of course, there is a lot more to  À la recherche du temps perdu than that.  The destination is of relatively little importance - it's the journey which makes it a great book.  Proust's writing is unlike anything I had previously encountered, a mesmerising, minutely-descriptive avalanche of words (although 'glacier' might be a more fitting choice here) - phrase after phrase, sentence upon sentence, paragraph after paragraph, pages of hypnotic prose, drawing the helpless reader ever further into Marcel's world.

What begins as something akin to watching paint dry (and each time you pick up the book, this feeling is still there at the back of your mind), ends with the reader becoming completely absorbed with the text, forgetting the world outside, fascinated by... something which described in fewer words would probably not be that interesting.

In a way, it's a literary gamble, a game of novelistic chicken - the writer slows time down to such an extent that the reader has only two choices: to get out of the way and stop reading, or give in to the relentless, gentle flow of description and sensation.  The kind of reader you are will probably determine which choice you make.  Either way, you know that Proust isn't going to blink first...

Despite some of my comments above, I always intended to continue with the novel, and I finally got around to making time for the second part of the story, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower).  Marcel (the narrator, not the writer) is now a teenager living in Paris, and the first half of the book describes his first love, the slightly ambiguous relationship he has with Gilberte Swann (the daughter of the family friend whose love-life is dissected in painful detail in the first book).  Once this affair has run its course, Marcel then spends a few months in the country, where he makes friends with Robert de Saint-Loup, an aristocratic soldier, and Elstir, a famous artist, before finally meeting Albertine Simonet, a young girl who (if the titles of the later volumes are anything to go by) will become very close to young Marcel...

Once again, the reader experiences the story through the filter of Marcel's memories and thoughts, leaving us to follow events at the languid pace he chooses to unroll them at.  The whole book is written in beautiful, rolling waves of language, which you cannot help but admire.  When I was able to sit down and give myself the time to enjoy it, I did so thoroughly.  However...

...if you're looking for a sympathetic narrator, Marcel ain't it.  One of the things which detracted a little from my enjoyment of À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs was how utterly spoiled and incomprehensible he could be at times.  The story is being told by old Marcel, looking back at his youth, explaining his childhood memories (which, of course, have been coloured by time) in the language of a mature, intelligent writer, and you have to wonder if he is deliberately making his younger self look ridiculous.  When Gilberte appears to tire of him, he decides not to see her any more (while still visiting her mother while she's out...), hoping in some way to make her come back to him by doing nothing at all.  He says:
Je pleurais mais je trouvais le courage, je connaissais la douceur, de sacrifier le bonheur d'être auprès d'elle à la possibilité de lui paraître agréable un jour, un jour où, hélas! lui paraître agréable me serait indifférent.

I cried, but I found strength, I recognised the sweetness of sacrificing the happiness of being close to her for the possibility of her liking me again one day, a day when, alas! I would be completely indifferent to the idea of her liking me. (My translation)
In fact, without insights from anyone slightly less biased than Marcel himself, it is extremely difficult to warm to him at all.  Despite the fact that everyone he meets seems to recognise him as a superior being from the offset, the reader would struggle to find any justification for this from the text.  He appears to be a spoiled, weak, sickly, selfish brat (yep, a teenager), yet famous artists, soldiers and beautiful young women seem to be falling over themselves for the pleasure of making his acquaintance.  His family must be very rich...

Still, the writing makes up for it.  Forgive me if I don't provide more examples of it here;  the reason for this (apart from the fact that I'm too lazy to find and copy the appropriate passages - and then translate them too...) is that Proust isn't about the odd pithy sentence, or a telling paragraph here and there.  His work is about the cumulative effect of hundreds of thousands of words perfectly placed to create a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.  And if that doesn't sound like your cup of tea...

So I'll keep going with À la recherche du temps perdu, albeit at a fairly slow rate of knots (which is probably highly appropriate), but before I leave you, I thought I'd just finish with a note on how I'm reading it.  As you may have suspected, I'm reading it in French, which may account for some of the problems I've had with it.  I am always torn when reading French-language novels, as my ability in the language is such that reading books in the original is possible (and usually enjoyable) but not always that easy, leaving me to wonder whether it might be acceptable to take the easy option and read an English translation instead...

It's a moral dilemma (one I don't really have in German, which I read much more fluently), especially as the more often I give in, the less likely I am to ever read anything in French in the future.  It's a matter of weighing up the choices, deciding whether the opportunity of reading the writer's own words is more important than getting every nuance of a recreation of the original.  In the end, I decided that I would go for the French, despite the many drawbacks this entails.  I'm not sure if it's the right decision, but it's one I'm happy with - for the moment at least :)

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Something A Little Like Life

After a short break, it's time for another trip to Iceland, this time courtesy of the good people over at Portobello BooksGuðrún Eva Mínervudóttir's novel The Creator (translated by Sarah Bowen) is a strange, but entertaining novel, describing what happens when a woman meets a man - one with an unusual profession...

We begin in the small town of Akranes, where Sveinn a middle-aged artisan, has just finished an exhausting bout of work on his creations.  As he moves to the kitchen to prepare his dinner, he sees a woman outside his house, struggling with a flat tyre.  Despite his fatigue, he invites her in, shares some dinner and drinks with her, and changes the tyre.  When he wakes up the next morning, the woman is gone - and so is something else.

You see, Sveinn hand-makes life-sized sex dolls, and when Lóa, his unexpected visitor, stumbles across one in his workshop, she decides to take it.  A rather unusual decision, you may say (and you'd be right), but there is a method in her madness, and it all has to do with her daughter, Margrét.  In her hungover state, Lóa thinks that her daughter, who is withdrawing from all human contact, may be able to relate better to a doll than people...

What follows is a bizarre tale, swinging back and forth between Akranes and Reykjavik, one which never quite goes the way you'd expect.  The idea of the sex doll, while important for the plot, is a bit of a red herring; The Creator is not so much about sex as it is about loneliness and longing.  All of the main characters in the novel are adrift, looking for a little attention and affection.  Sveinn's friend, Kjartan, looks for it in the shape of dolls; Lárus, a young man who gets caught up in Sveinn's mission to retrieve his goods, just wants a friend.  And as for Sveinn and Lóa...

Both have failed relationships behind them and are trying to fill the gaps in their lives (Sveinn with work, Lóa with alcohol), hoping to stop the slide before their lives crumble into pieces.  By the time the doll maker tracks down his visitor in Reykjavik, her world is already in tatters, and Sveinn finds himself having to help her hold it together.  The two seem perfect for each other - however, the fact that Sveinn thinks that Lóa is a stalker may well get in the way of a blossoming friendship.

Mínervudóttir has structured The Creator by writing chapters alternating between Sveinn and Lóa's points of view, a technique which allows the reader to see events through two pairs of eyes.  With the characters often speaking at cross purposes, it's a clever trick, one which is carried on successfully throughout the novel.  Although at times it has the effect of slowing the narrative a little too much, the skillful way in which the writer manipulates the conversations more than makes up for this.  Often it is only after hearing both sides of the story that the reader is able to gain a clearer (but never clear) understanding of what has happened, as both Sveinn and Lóa only recall parts of the conversation, omitting certain details and exaggerating or distorting others.

Although Lóa is dismissive of Sveinn's work, wondering why he would waste his talents on such a distasteful trade, he is proud of his work, confident that he can maintain the distinction between dolls and women.  As the book progresses though, it becomes painfully obvious that this is not strictly true.  On several occasions, he describes Lóa as if she were a doll:
He observed the woman sitting opposite him at the table more carefully.  She resembled typical drawings of the first women settlers: large round eyes and big shapely bosoms that rested firmly on a sturdy, solid torso, and legs like two magnificent pillars. p.11 (Portobello Books, 2012)
There's nothing sexual about his descriptions of the woman sitting opposite him - these are merely the detached musings of an artist at work...

The Creator is an entertaining and thought-provoking work, one I'm happy to recommend.  If you're looking for resolutions or happy endings, you'll be disappointed (there aren't any), but in this way the book is more reminiscent of real life than of a novel.  People change when drama occurs, but only incrementally.  Real change is a slow process, and the most you can hope for in a short period of time is a catalyst to make you stand back and have a good look at your life.  This is the effect of the events running through The Creator; whether Sveinn, Lóa and co. actually benefit from their encounter is a story for another day.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Getting Ready for German Literature Month

November is not too far off, and that means that it will soon be time for what was my favourite blogging event last year, German Literature Month!  After toying with us all by thinking about giving it a miss this time around, Caroline and Lizzy have finally given in to public pressure (I'm sure I wasn't the only one spamming them on Twitter...) and announced the details of this year's fiesta - sorry, Fest :)

While last year's event was mainly regionally based, this time around the month is organised into four genre-based weeks:
     Week One (1st-7th) is all about Novellas, Plays and Poems
     Week Two (8th-14th) is for Literary Novels
     Week Three (15th-21st) is devoted to Genre Fiction
     Week Four (22nd-30th) is where you can read anything you like :)
Hopefully, there'll be something for everybody somewhere in there...

Before the action begins, watch out for a giveaway on my blog as part of Judith's Literary Blog Hop.  The post will go up on the 27th of October, and (of course) I will be giving away a little slice of G-Lit perfection ;)  Hopefully the winners will get to read it before the end of November...

Of course, part of the fun of this kind of event is thinking about what you're going to choose, and I've been doing an awful lot of (read 'far too much') thinking about my plans for the month already.  I know all about what happens to the best laid plans of mice and men, but I'm willing to give it a go anyway :)  Here then are a few preliminary ideas as to my reading plans for November...

For Week One, I'm determined to stick with the theme and cover all text types suggested.  My novella may well be Adalbert Stifter's Brigitta, a mid-nineteenth-century work about an unfortunate young woman, a slim volume which has been on my shelves for far too long.  I'm also planning to tackle not one, but two plays, both by giants of German-language literature.  I was intending to tackle Schiller's Kabale und Liebe (Love and Intrigues) last year, but I got a little side-tracked...  This year, there will be no excuses, and I'll throw in Goethe's pastoral piece, Hermann und Dorothea for good measure, with Heinrich Heine's poem Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen (Germany. A Winter's Tale) being the poetic component :)

For Week Two, I'll be trying to work my way around the German-speaking world a little.  My plans at the moment include Swiss writer Peter Stamm's Ungefähre Landschaft (Unformed Landscape), Theodor Fontane's L'Adultera and Romanian-born writer Hertha Müller's Herztier (translated into English under the rather unusual title The Land of Green Plums).  As I'm unlikely to try any genre fiction, I'll be carrying on with literary works into Week Three, with Austrian writer Joseph Roth's Hotel Savoy and Judith Hermann's collection of short stories, Sommerhaus, Später (Summer House, Later) likely to carry me up to the end of that week.

In Week Four, I'll be reading a mixed bag of books.  I'll definitely be trying to fit in a few of the Grimm Brothers' Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Grimm's Tales) to participate in the readalong, and while Heinrich von Kleist has no part in my plans this year (those who read my blog last year will know why...), he will be popping up in East German writer Christa Wolf's Kein Ort, Nirgends as a character :)  If we add works by former Peirene Press writer, Alois Hotschnig (Leonardos Hände / Leonardo's Hands) and future Peirene Press writer, Birgit Vanderbeke (Ich sehe was, was du nicht siehst / I Spy, with my Little Eye), then the month should just about be complete!

Of course, I doubt that this is exactly how it will all go.  As last year's plans (and the actual final list) show, I'm not too good at keeping my promises.  Nevertheless, one promise I will keep is that I will be reading, posting and commenting as often as possible in November...

...and (naturally) that the bus will be there for the whole journey :)

So, over to you!  Do you have any ideas about some Germanic reading for November?  Have you read any of my suggestions?  I'd love to know what you're all planning, so please leave a comment :)

Thursday 4 October 2012

Sitting in Front of the Gate

I haven't had a lot of opportunities to enjoy my J-Lit library of late, busy as I've been with assorted review copies and Icelandic works, so it was a nice change to pick up a book from my shelves, one I've been wanting to get to for a while.  Natsume Soseki is one of my favourite Japanese writers, and The Gate (Mon), published by Peter Owen Publishers, is the third-part of a thematically-linked trilogy which began with Sanshiro and Sorekara (And Then).  Back to Tokyo we go then :)

The Gate (translated by Francis Mathy) introduces the reader to Sosuke and Oyone, a childless married couple living in Tokyo.  Aside from the usual financial concerns, theirs seems a fairly happy existence, an idyllic, if humdrum, married life in the suburbs of the big city.  However, all is not quite as it seems.  Sosuke's younger brother, Koroku, appears on the scene, and his arrival allows the writer to expand on the back stories of his creations.  Soon, we see that Sosuke and Oyone's life is not as typical as we may first have thought...

The couple's simple existence has come about by necessity, not by choice, as their relationship had rather controversial and immoral beginnings.  However, this has also caused Sosuke to struggle in other areas of his life as he has become unable to assert himself or make any major decision without considerable inner turmoil.  This stagnation has caused him to be cheated of his inheritance and led to his lowly status in his company.  When he is forced to look after his brother, and later his sick wife, it appears that his past has finally caught up with him.

It's not quite as simple as all that though.  While the reader suspects that a major tragedy is in progress, the truth is that little really happens, and it's difficult to work out exactly what The Gate is all about.  Koroku's troubles are certainly not central to the novel, and while Oyone's illness (as written on the back cover) initially appears to be a turning point, this isn't a melodrama.  Even the sub-plot of the wasted inheritance is fairly trivial, quickly brushed under the carpet.

What it's really about is Sosuke and his miserable, grey existence.  The gate of the title is a very Kafkaesque representation of an entrance to a happier state of existence, one which our (anti-) hero is unlikely ever to find.  Living (literally and symbolically!) in the shadows, their house located at the bottom of a cliff, Sosuke and Oyone are old before their time:
"Though they were in fact still young, they had slipped past this stage and seemed to grow plainer and more matter-of-fact day by day.  To the casual observer they may even have given the impression of being two very humdrum and colourless people who had come together as man and wife only to conform to social custom." p.28 (Peter Owen, 2006)
Victims of circumstance, their drab life is not one of choice; rather, they have been forced into it by their mistake:
"That they had spent these long years in daily repetition of the same routine, however, was not because they had from the first lost interest in the outside world, but rather because this world had placed them in isolation, then turned its cold back upon them." pp.134-5
Instead of rebelling against an unforgiving society though, Sosuke accepts his lot, becoming just another rat in the daily race into, and back out of, Tokyo:
"All the year round he breathed the air of Tokyo.  Daily he rode on the streetcar to and from work, passing morning and evening through the bustling streets.  But he was always so fatigued in mind and body that he travelled in a daze, completely unaware of his surroundings." pp.11-12
As you may have gathered from the quotations above, Sosuke is hardly an energetic go-getter.  In fact, at times he's really not a very easy person to feel sympathy for...

Towards the middle of the book, I started to find myself getting a little impatient with the story, wondering where exactly it was going.  It was fairly sickly-sweet in places, and there were a lot of info dumps, dragging the reader back into the past, before looping back to the present, an endless cycle of repetitive information.  Until Sosuke decides to step outside his life for a little while by going to a Buddhist temple...

And this is where the book gets interesting, especially when you finish it and read the wonderful introduction.  Damian Flanagan, a writer and critic who has a particular interest in Natsume Soseki, provides an excellent background to the novel and an intriguing interpretation, one which relies on the author's overseas travels, his literary connections in Tokyo and his familiarity with the work of one Friedrich Nietzsche...

While most of Flanagan's ideas go flapping gently somewhere over my head, this introduction is a perfect example of the kind of extra that can make editions stand out.  Certainly, I felt I understood The Gate a lot more having read Flanagan's analysis of the book.  Without having read Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) though, I feel I'm not really in a position to judge whether I agree completely with what he says ;)

One thing I am sure of though is that The Gate, despite its lack of drama, does not describe a happy existence.  Sosuke is a man trapped in mediocrity, unable either to forget the past or take a bold step into the future.  While his life is relatively comfortable, he is condemned to cycle between regret and forlorn hope, without the mental strength to break free of the temporal prison he finds himself in.  Repeating mistakes for the rest of your life?  Sounds like a tragedy to me...

Monday 1 October 2012

A Promise is a Promise...

In the middle of my recent spate of Icelandic books, I read Sarah Moss' Names for the Sea, a non-fiction book about a year an English woman spent in Iceland.  While entertaining, it was very much an outsider's view of the country and left me wishing that there had been a little more insight into Icelandic life.

Which is when I spotted another book on the subject, this time written by a man who had spent much of his youth shuttling between Iceland, England and Australia.  Luckily enough, I was able to obtain a review copy from the publisher, University of Queensland Press (UQP), to see how the insider's point of view compared to the outsider's...

The Promise of Iceland was written by Australian university lecturer Kári Gíslason, possibly to work through some of the events of his earlier life.  Gíslason was born in Iceland to an Anglo-Australian mother, the result of a lengthy affair she had with a married Icelandic man.  Despite the welcoming attitude of most Icelanders to any child, Gíslason's mother decided to respect the wishes of the reticent father, keeping his identity a secret for the best part of three decades.

As surprising as this decision was, what was even more astonishing was that the son also decided to respect his mother's wishes, refusing to break his mother's promise, even though it caused financial and social hardship.  Iceland is all about family, and being unable to acknowledge your heritage makes you an outsider in a country which should be your own.  Shuttled between England, Iceland and Australia, young Kári grows up with his secret, unwilling to tell any of the friends and family who would have been only to eager to help out.  Until, one day, he finally decides that it's time for everyone to face the truth...

The Promise of Iceland is a compelling narrative, exploring Gíslason's early life and providing a welcome insight into Icelandic culture.  Many of the features appearing in other Icelandic books I've read are highlighted here, such as the small, closed society and the relative freedom of childhood.  When Gíslason's mother, Susan, is pregnant with her son, she fears that her status as a single mum will cause her problems with her employers - which is not the case at all.  In fact, her surly boss is very happy for her (as is her landlord):
It was a conversation that was repeated almost word for word when she spoke to her landlord, Brynjólfur, about whether she would be able to stay in her apartment in Sólvallagata.
"What do you mean?" he said.
"Now that I'm having a baby."
"What did you think we'd do, dear?  Kick you out?"
That's exactly what she'd thought.  She couldn't quite believe that a child could be so welcomed. p.72 (University of Queensland Press, 2012) 
In England or Australia in 1972, Susan would almost definitely have ended up homeless and unemployed...

As you may have gathered, for much of the book, The Promise of Iceland is just as much about Susan as it is about Kári himself.  In telling us about her, the writer attempts to make the reader understand why he agreed to keep her promise.  After only reading the blurb, I idly wondered why he thought he had the right to break this promise at all.  Once I'd actually read some of the book, I was more amazed at his even considering not outing his father.  The writer attempts to explain his reasoning for making his own promise to his father at the age of seventeen:
The point is that I wanted to do the right thing, by both my parents and my country.  I wanted to do the loving thing and, in 1990, it seemed positively wrong to be the ruin of his family life. (p.130)
Later his attitude changes as he comes to feel that he has been robbed of the family life he deserves.  We feel his tension as he returns, once again, to Iceland, this time to meet his half-brothers and sisters...

There are obvious comparisons with Names for the Sea, and the same themes pop up, whether it's the attitude towards children, the obsession with coffee and knitting, or Reykjavik's small-town atmosphere (at one point the writer regularly bumps into Vigdís Finnbogadóttir in a shop - a woman who was the country's President at the time!).  In other ways though, Gíslason's background means that The Promise of Iceland is a very different book.  Moss was a tourist; Gíslason was a (semi-) native.  Moss visited the distant Westfjord islands; Gísalason lived and worked there.  Where Moss was frustratingly introspective at times, Gíslason opens the country up for us.

All of which makes The Promise of Iceland an excellent work.  Well written, fascinating and absorbing, the book pulls the reader along on Kári's search for closure and fulfilment, making us hope he can find the acknowledgement he's after.  You may think that the issue would have lost most of its significance after so much time, but you'd be wrong.  You see, for much of his life, Kári's family name was Reid, one belonging to the man his mother married (and was separated from) long before her son was born.  Gíslason is actually the patronymic derived from the name of his father, Gísli.  Just by using his full name on the cover, the writer is showing how much his identity means to him...