Archive for May, 2010

She Lover of Death

May 31, 2010

When Boris Akunin began the adventures of Erast Fandorin with The Winter Queen, he set out quite deliberately to write each novel in a different style. The second, Turkish Gambit, was an Ian Flemingesque spy story; the third, Leviathan, owed much to Agatha Christie. In speaking about his work he is astonishingly systematic: the Sister Pelagia novels (which have also been translated into English) are more ‘literary’ than Erast Fandorin, the Nicholas Fandorin novels less so. He has also undertaken a project to write a series of novels each of a different genre.

Admiration of this playfulness is probably a prerequisite of enjoyment. The reader should not expect a story in which we can safely identify with our protagonist until the mystery is solved. Fandorin does not even appear until we are more than seventy pages in, and then is only identified by the reader’s knowledge from previous volumes of his “slight stammer”, the “squat, solidly built Oriental” who follows him, and his Holmesian manner of deduction:

“You walked in without ringing or kn-knocking. So you must have come to see someone you know. That is one. You see strangers here but you don’t ask after the occupant of the flat. So you already know that he is dead. That is two…”

Instead the centre of the narrative is a young girl, Masha Miranova, newly arrived in Moscow from the country in pursuit of her urban and (so she thinks) urbane lover, ‘Harlequin’. This is well-judged as it allows Akunin to present the city to us with all the detail of a new-comer’s eye. Also, we can be amused by Masha’s attempts to create a new personality for herself, often explicitly rewriting her diary:

“But, no, I mustn’t write like that…I am not writing for myself, but for art.”

Her tastes and attitudes are also changed to suit:

“She lounged on the downy mattress for a while, phoned down to the ground floor to have coffee sent up, and in celebration of her new sophisticated life, drank it without cream or sugar. It was bitter and unpalatable, but it was bohemian.”

Masha’s narrative is, however, not the only one: we also have a series of newspaper stories and the letters of a reluctant police informer. All three narrators are members of a suicide club in which they enrol under pseudonyms, making it initially unclear which members they are and adding to the general air of mystery. Playful allusions to Russian literature are common in Akunin’s work, and it seems likely that he intends to satirise the many despairing protagonists, “half in love with easeful Death”, that populate its pages. In fact, I would go further and suggests he takes pleasure in killing so many of them off, instead of allowing them to endlessly threaten their end. Of course, it soon turns out that not all of the deaths are suicide, and those that are have been subject to unnatural levels of encouragement.

She Lover of Death is more humorous (despite its dark subject matter) than many of the previous adventures, and features Fandorin largely in silhouette. It does, however, deliver one of the most tense and thrilling final chapters. Akunin claims he saw a gap in the Russian market: entertainment for educated readers. And that is exactly what these novels are.

The Elephant

May 24, 2010

Penguin’s Central European Classics are a rare instance of a publisher committing to a project that might excite even the most jaded reader. Instead of once again repackaging the familiar faces of Sunday evening adaptations, here is an attempt to bring back into print writers who have been, for the most part, ignored and neglected in this country; writers whose names you may not recognise, far less be able to pronounce. Even the fact that it “does not pretend to be definitive or even particularly coherent” is an attraction as they jump from genre to genre across the years like a drunk fjording a river.

Should you be tempted, Slawomir Mrozek’s The Elephant is a good place to start. Mrozek is apparently more famous as a playwright, though he is one of six writers in the ten book series whom I am quite happy to admit I’ve never heard of before. As a dramatist, he has been associated with the theatre of the absurd, but his stories generally reveal a more satirical intent. In the title story, for example, the director of a zoo rejects the allocation of an elephant, instead “putting forward a plan for obtaining an elephant by more economic means” being

“…fully aware how heavy a burden falls upon the shoulders of Polish miners and foundry men because of the elephant.”

An elephant is instead constructed from rubber, the logic being that the elephant is “a sluggish animal”. When the elephant is finally revealed to a group of school children, however, a gust of wind lifts it into the air. Mrozek fills the story with deft touches. For example, he juxtaposes the elephant’s take-off with the teacher’s comment that “the weight of a fully grown elephant is between nine and thirteen thousand pounds,” and has it land in the neighbouring botanical gardens on a cactus. In other words, each story does not simply make you smile at its punch-line, but throughout.

Many of the stories feature animals: swans, lions, giraffes, horses. Others are even more surreal: tiny people in a drawer; civil servants taking flight; a telegraph wire made of a line of people. Often they are overtly political, like the patriotic drummer who is charged with treason for keeping the General awake, or the meteorologist who is criticised for reporting rain. However, while it is easy to see the satirical intent with regard to 1950s Poland, most still resonate with contemporary society.

While it is almost too easy to read through these 42 stories, it’s astonishing that Mrozek was able to cram so many memorable ideas into such a slim volume. It’s also a reminder (along with the eye-catching cover) that literature from behind the Iron Curtain should not always be equated with the gas-lit grey of gloom. The translator of this collection, Konrad Syrop, also translated another volume of Mrozek’s stories in the sixties – let’s hope that, too, may, in time, reappear. In the meantime, this is highly recommended.

All That Follows

May 20, 2010

Jim Crace has surely been one of the most consistently interesting writers in Britain over the last twenty-five years. Each novel is famously different from the last. As he has said himself, “Whenever I would go into my publisher’s office to describe my next book…no-one would look at me.” His latest novel, however, is a perverse change of direction even by his own standards:

“I wanted to see whether I could pull off a book where I do the things I don’t normally do well…I’m not good at holding a mirror up to a real world. I’m not good at believable characterisation.”

Having identified what he regards as his weaknesses, Crace has written a novel that embraces rather than avoids them. Gone are the timeless prose, the distanced, almost mythic settings, and the emblematic characters. Instead we are in London and Texas (we even have a ‘real’ character in Laura Bush) and a protagonist, Leonard Lessing, so rooted in reality that any dynamism he demonstrates is only visible at the edges.

Crace spoke about his idea for the novel in an interview in 2005:

“It’s going to be about a man who’s postured politically all his life but has never down anything politically dangerous, and in his fifties he does something immensely foolish and dangerous but courageous to try and put that right.”

Crace demonstrates Lessing’s unchanging timidity by placing one narrative inside another. In the novel’s present (fourteen years in our future) Lessing is startled to see the face of a man he once knew, Maxie Lermon, on the evening news making demands of the government in return for the release of hostages he has taken in a London suburb. Lessing faces his first dilemma: should he contact the police to identify Maxie? His character is neatly encapsulated by Crace in the antithetical pairing:

“He will phone. He will never phone.”

As so often with Lessing, events overtake him and Maxie is identified before he can make a decision. Maxie also features in the second narrative, set in Texas in 2006. It is here we get to know Maxie as a self-styled revolutionary, reckless and violent, and contemptuous of Lessing:

“Some two-trick circus pony you turned out to be, either runnin’ off or down on your knees.”

Nevertheless, Maxie manages to rope Lessing into his latest demonstration, a plan to disrupt a visit to a library by Laura Bush, largely because Lessing is trying to impress Maxie’s girlfriend (and the reason he came to Texas), Nadia. When Maxie is prevented from entering and Lessing discovers that the President is not in evidence, he immediately decides he has all the reasons he needs to call it off:

“For the first time that day, the rigid knot in his stomach loosens and unties. He is a happy man. Their plans can be abandoned.”

He abandons Nadia to arrest, just as later he backs out of her (and Maxie’s) daughter’s plan to end the siege by pretending to be kidnapped:

“I won’t be there. Sorry, Lucy, but I can’t.”

Clearly, Lessing is a difficult character to like, never mind admire. Crace has described him as standing for

“…the weakness in bourgeois liberalism….the person who would rather not give offence than do the right thing.”

However, there is another side to Lessing, particularly his career as a jazz saxophonist. That his music transforms him is represented by his adoption of a stage name, Lennie Less. Crace contrasts his political timidity with his artistic courage:

“He’s on the tightrope, balancing. It’s technique and abandonment. He’s elated, yes, but he’s also terrified…But there is no retreat. Nor does he want to find a safer place.”

That Crace has used jazz as a metaphor in the past for his own writing suggests we should take this seriously. He is also portrayed as a kind and loving husband, and the peace-maker (“They used to call him Cyrus, the Bringer of Peace”) between his wife and step-daughter. Indeed, his only achievement in the novel is to bring Francine and her daughter together again. His act of courage at the end, while bringing him his long-awaited night in the cells, is largely purposeless.

Crace prefaces his novel with two contrasting epigraphs which sum up the novel’s dilemma (whether direct action is brave or foolish), firmly coming down on opposite sides. The novel itself refuses to deliver an easy answer. Lessing’s cowardice is uncomfortable but understandable; Maxie’s revolutionary zeal appears dangerous and self-aggrandizing.

In striving for realism, Crace sacrifices readability in places, and his decision to set much of the novel in a future that is almost a mirror image of the present seems largely pointless. There is also a distinct lack of politics in the novel: we are expected to assume both Lessing and Maxie’s political beliefs. (Of course, this could suggest how shallow they are). However, as with all his work, the questions he is asking are important and urgent.

The Blind Side of the Heart

May 14, 2010

As with The Kindly Ones, Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart explores the German experience of war during the twentieth century. Here, however, the focus is on the civilian population, and women in particular. Franck also takes a longer view, beginning with the First World War and moving through the inter-war years to beyond the Second.

The Prologue is really an epilogue, set after the Second World War has ended, as Peter and his mother seek to escape from a Russian occupied sector of Germany. The threat faced by women from men, a reoccurring theme of the novel, is already in evidence as Peter returns home to his apartment to find two soldiers emerging:

“They were clapping each other on the back in high good humour.”

A third soldier is sitting naked on the floor sobbing. Our disassociation from his mother, Helene’s, experience at this point is not simply the use of a child’s viewpoint to create irony. It is clear that Helene herself is distant from her own life. Her coldness towards Peter is shown by her refusal to take his hand:

“He reached for her hand. She shook his off and went ahead of him.”

And later:

“Mother, he repeated, taking her hand again…Next moment the train jerked… and his mother held tight with one hand to the baggage rack and with the other to the door frame for the rest of the journey, while Peter clung to her coat without her noticing or being able to prevent him.”

However, this does not prepare us for her actions when she leaves Peter waiting for her at a station and does not return. The rest of the novel is, to some extent, an attempt to explain this.

Helene’s childhood, we discover, was not an easy one. Her Jewish mother largely ignored her, and never recovered from her father’s decision to fight in the First World War. When he returns, severely wounded, she refuses to even see him, and it is Helene and her older sister Martha, who nurse him until he dies. When they get the chance to move to Berlin and live with a rich aunt they take it, abandoning their mother to only the occasional mention thereafter. Franck portrays Berlin as a place of frantic hedonism in the 1920s and early 30s. Martha becomes addicted to morphine and pursues a lesbian affair with a married woman whom she has followed to the city. Helene, nine years younger and more serious, doesn’t fit in. Eventually she meets a young man, Carl, who falls in love with her, but he dies before they can marry and at this point she seems to close down emotionally:

“Helene sat down again and went on not waiting for anything. Days passed.”

Her marriage to Wilhelm is something she drifts into, partly influence by his provision of papers proving she is pure German. When he discovers she is not a virgin, however, his attitude towards her changes completely, and believably, and he is soon estranged for her, building roads for the new Nazi regime.

The novel has many excellent scenes, for example when Helene goes to visit Carl’s parents after his death, or the night of her marriage to Wilhelm. Its central irony is the similarities between Helene and her mother. Where her mother loses her husband to war, Helen’s loses the man she loves to an accident: in both instances it is their sense of powerlessness that distresses them. Her mother’s waiting for her husband’s return is echoed in the fact that Helene is waiting for Carl on the day he dies. Both are also affected by their Jewishness: Helene because she is threatened by Wilhelm, her mother because she is regarded as an eccentric in her village. Finally, both reject their children.

The novel’s final scenes are also ironic. When Helene reappears year later to visit Peter, he hides in the barn and refuses to see her. This echoes an earlier scene when they are mushroom picking and Helen hides from her son:

“The boy sat down and wept…. If she came out of the bushes now, just a few metres away, he would know she had been watching him and had hidden on purpose.”

In both cases, however, it is Helene who seems ultimately powerless, and it is her powerlessness that is central to the novel. Her only affirmative actions are her rejection of her mother and then her son. The powerlessness is sometimes sexual:

“He thrust his prick into her, regular thrust after regular thrust, like a hammer driving a nail into the wall.”

More often, however, it is related to her inability to control her own fate.

The Blind Side of the Heart probably tries to do too much, particularly in dealing with so many years of German history. Characters also have a tendency to fade away: the mother, Martha, and even Helene herself (we never find out where she goes when she leaves Peter or why she comes back). Having said that, it contains many memorable scenes and tackles the issues of those years from a new and interesting angle.

The Kindly Ones

May 10, 2010

At least once a year a novel is paraded before us as a literary masterpiece, something that will make enough of a splash to leave us watching the ripples for many years to come. Generally, this novel will be American, but occasionally it will originate from elsewhere; almost always it will be at least 500 pages long, even though experience tells us that great literature tends not be measured using scales. The Kindly Ones is one such novel – I can, in fact, remember reading about it before it was translated into English. By that time it had already picked up awards in France, and it did indeed sound intriguing. Written by an expatriate American in French, it apparently told the story of the Second World War from the point of view of an unrepentant Nazi.

This central character is Max Aue. He begins the narrative with a defence of his actions:

“I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was.”

However, almost 1,000 pages later and it’s still not clear whether Littell intends this ironically or whether it is, in fact, the novel’s central message. One problem is that Aue is about as far from an everyman character as you are likely to get. He also says in his defence that he has “loved a woman”, but he is referring to his sister. When their incestuous relationship is discovered by their mother (the father has long since disappeared), and they are separated, he refuses to sleep with other women, only with men so that he can feel what she feels. By the novel’s end he is famously pleasuring himself on the branch of a tree. Clearly (or perhaps that should be, hopefully) Littell is using this metaphorically to tell us something about Nazi psychology. There are certainly occasions when the similarities between the Jews and the Nazis, and the Bolsheviks and the Nazis are drawn. A captured Russian Commissar discusses this with Aue at length:

“In the end our two systems aren’t so different. In principle at least.”

However, it does make it unlikely that the reader will be thinking, ‘that could be me…’

Despite this, the novel is very effective in places at conveying the cruelty and the insanity of the Nazi’s attitude towards the Jewish people through its point of view. Aue’s early involvement in Eastern Europe allows us to see the practical problems encountered when attempting to shoot large numbers of unarmed civilians:

“…the method imposed by von Reichenau, with just two guns per condemned man, had its disadvantages: if you wanted to be sure of your shot you had to aim at the head rather than the chest, which caused spattering, the men got blood and brains in their faces, they were complaining.”

This approach, if anything, intensifies the horror. Later, as the Germans face defeat in Russia, time is wasted pointlessly trying to decide if a particular tribe are of Jewish race or if they simply follow the Jewish religion. As the war nears its end, Aue finds himself involved in an ironic battle to keep those in work camps strong and healthy enough to work. Again, the way in which this is presented simply as a practical problem gives us an insight into the psychology of dictatorship. Even as German troops starve in Stalingrad, their starvation is being studied.

Littell is also good on the way in which Aue and others are affected by what they witness and take part in. Aue is quickly afflicted by vomiting, something he still suffers from years after the war. Other officers go mad, and it is likely Aue does too. While in Stalingrad he survives a bullet through the head and later murders his mother and step father, though apparently his actions leave no memory. From this point on the narrative is less reliable, including Aue’s amusing but increasingly unlikely shadowing by two policemen determined to convict him of the killings.

Some scenes are both moving and memorable. The starving, almost feral soldiers of Stalingrad, and the moment where his friend Thomas, scoops his intestines back onto his stomach after being wounded; the forced march from the concentration camp; and the final moments in a ruined Berlin. Others, however, are less involving, particularly the time spent in his mother’s house where he apparently loses his mind and there is a tiresome (for Aue and the reader) amount of masturbation. The novel is too long, too crammed with research, and Aue is ultimately just too unusual to carry it. Not a masterpiece then, but not entirely a failure either.


May 5, 2010

A detour from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to Brooklyn, Colm Toibin’s much praised and award-winning novel (I think I’m right in saying it was the novel most chosen as Book of the Year at the end of 2009). Such raised expectations often lead to disappointment, and so it proved. The prose seemed strangely flat and styleless (and from an Irish writer as well!), the central character opaque, and the plot a series of teases. However, the more I’ve reflected on it, the more impressed I’ve become with the novel, seeing choices where I once saw weaknesses.

Brooklyn is the story of a young Irish girl, Eilis, who lives with her mother and older sister, Rose, in a small village in Ireland. Toibin uses the novel’s opening to demonstrate the limited opportunities open to her: a part-time job in the local shop working for the snobbish Miss Kelly, and the contempt of local lads like Jim Farrell whose superiority rests on his father’s ownership of a pub. Her mother and sister arrange with a visiting priest, Father Flood, that Eilis go to America for the chance of a better life. From the first mention of this, it is clear that the decision has been taken for her:

“In the silence that lingered, she realized, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America. Father Flood, she believed, had been invited to the house because Rose knew that he could arrange it.”

Both the crossing and Eilis’ initial loneliness are convincingly portrayed. This loneliness is dissipated when she begins seeing an Italian American, Tony, who is kind and affectionate; the relationship progressing gradually until the sudden death of Rose and Eilis’ decision to return home to see her mother. Tony insists that they secretly marry first as he fears (rightly) that she may not return.

My initial dissatisfaction with Brooklyn probably originated with the tricks which Toibin plays on his reader with regard to plot. Throughout the novel he frequently gives the impression that it is heading in a particular direction only for that plot-line to fizzle out and never reach the firework stage. This can be seen in the way that the most intriguing characters, like Rose and Frankie (Tony’s brother), feature the least. A specific example would be Rosenblum, Eilis’ teacher in America, who we learn is a Jewish survivor of Nazi Germany:

“The Germans killed everyone belonging to him, murdered every one of them, but we got him out, at least we did that, we got Joshua Rosenblum out.”

Rosenblum, however, is never mentioned again; indeed, the whole plot-line of Eilis’ evening classes comes to nothing. In many ways Toibin is playing with expectations created by literature: for example, Tony and Eilis sleep together after Rose’s death, but Eilis doesn’t fall pregnant and have to marry him, a staple of so many books before. This happens so often, however, it can lead to a constant feeling of anti-climax. Toibin is clearly more interested in verisimilitude than drama.

Eilis herself can seem a disappointing protagonist. Her journey to America is not the only time she does not seem in control of her destiny. Her relationship with Tony seems almost entirely based on what he feels for her – at most she feels a “great tenderness” towards him. When he tells her about the land his family have bought and the house that will be theirs, it simply says she “watched him carefully”

“She was almost in tears at what he was proposing and how practical he was as he spoke and how serious and sincere.”

Her own feelings (the ‘tears’) are vague; the focus is on Tony, whose tone, as much as anything, is causing her emotional response. Her later attraction to Jim Farrell seems equally based on his treatment of her:

“…she liked his bulky, easygoing presence and the tone in his voice, which came so naturally from the streets of the town. He had clear blue eyes, she thought, that saw no harm in anything. And she was fully aware that these blue eyes of his lingered on her now with an interest that was unmistakeable.”

Yet if Eilis’ passion is not what we would expect of literature, it is what we might reasonably expect of life, particularly from a young Irish girl of the 1950s. Ultimately we feel sympathy for her not simply because she is not allowed to make a choice, but because, deep down, she doesn’t seem to feel that her life is one where choices are possible. It is the very ordinariness of Brooklyn that is moving.