Archive for August, 2012

Lost Books – City of Marvels

August 12, 2012

Eduardo Mendoza has only been sporadically well-served by UK publishers: City of Marvels, originally published in 1986, appeared in English as soon as 1988 thanks to Harvill Press, with another three novels following. Then, in 2007, Telegram published the hilarious No Word from Gurb followed by another early, humorous work, The Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt. (A third title was announced but has yet to appear.) City of Marvels has long been out of print but I recently discovered a copy in a second hand bookshop in Edinburgh (an unusual occurrence these days where almost everything is found online).

City of Marvels is the story of Onofre Bouvila who rises from poverty to riches in the traditional manner – dishonestly (even Dickens teaches us, in Great Expectations, that wealth, unless inherited, can only be gained through criminality, albeit second hand). This is, in fact, a rather traditional novel, and hugely entertaining for that. Bouvila arrives in Barcelona looking for a job but unable to find one. When all seems lost he is offered work handing out leaflets for an anarchist group, but soon decides there is a better living to be made selling hair restorer. From this point on he rarely looks back, rising, by cunning (and a little violence) to the top of Barcelona’s criminal class. During the course of the story he manages to fall in love no less than three times: firstly to his landlord’s daughter (where he overcomes the twin obstacles of an existing boyfriend and a mad cat); secondly with the daughter of his crime boss (for whom, of course, he is not good enough); and finally with the daughter of an inventor he finances. (I don’t know if he can’t find a woman attractive without knowing her father or whether it’s simply that that’s the only way he meets women).

As you might suspect, Bouvila is not an entirely attractive character. He uses all those around him (though admittedly that is the kind of world he lives in) and has largely disowned his family. His desire to succeed stems for his own father’s failure – having spent years in Cuba he returned claiming to be wealthy only for it to be discovered he was as poor as when he departed. He does show loyalty to a few souls, particularly Efren with whom he began his adventures in hair product retail, and his cross-dressing landlord whom he later employs. But he is, above all, a character from a novel, just that little bit bigger than life in every direction. The same can be said of many of the other characters, the plainest probably being his only friend, Efren, who is literally a giant instead.

The novel is also about Barcelona itself, as we can see from the opening pages which give us a history of the city from its founding by the Phoenicians. It is book-ended by the two World’s Fairs which took place in the city. Bouvila begins handing out pamphlets to the workers building the first World Fair in 1888, and ends by sponsoring an exhibit at the second in 1929. Clearly Mendoza is to Barcelona as Dickens is to London, and, like Dickens, he is a novelist who likes to leaven his drama with humour and a world-weary satire. A thoroughly enjoyable novel which deserves reprinting (hopefully at the same time his award winning Rina de gatas. Madrid, 1936 appears in English!)

But, before I go, I can’t resist leaving you with this quotation on the night that the Olympics come to a close:

“Ever since fascism caught on in Europe, all governments were encouraging participation in sports and attendance at sports competitions.”

Of course, in 1929 economic conditions weren’t great…

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Child of All Nations

August 8, 2012

Michael Hofmann points out in the afterword to his new translation of Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, that he came to Keun via Joseph Roth (a writer he has widely translated into English), Keun having travelled with Roth in exile from Germany between 1936 and 1938. The connection to Child of All Nations is even stronger, it being difficult not to read the novel as a fictionalised account of those times written from the point of view of a child.

Kully, the novel’s narrator, is a young girl who travels Europe with her mother and father having fled their native Germany where her father’s books have been banned. Money is a constant problem and her father is often absent in search of it:

“My father always manages to get hold of money from somewhere. And he always comes back to us too. I don’t think he ever completely forgets about us.”

This is not to say the family live in squalid conditions – instead they exhaust their credit in hotels, the mother often afraid to show herself outside their room while the father searches for a way of paying the bill. They live by borrowing from friends and acquaintances, and on advances for books her father claims to have almost finished but has not yet started. Kully’s awareness of money and the family’s lack of it is often contrasted with her father’s extravagance:

“My father squeezed us into a taxi. I was thinking we could easily have walked home and saved the fare.”

Her father’s spendthrift nature is best demonstrated in the way he constantly loses coins around the room which Kully picks up and threads onto a necklace. One might expect that this might eventually be utilised in an emergency, but in fact her father uses it as a tip when he has no other cash.

As well as being a wonderful insight into life in exile during 1930s Europe, the novel also demonstrates the strengths of using a child narrator. Kully’s generally forgiving attitude to her parents better reveals their characters than the narration of either one would. She accepts her father’s absences and extravagances just as she does her mother’s anxieties. Her stateless existence is everyday life to her, which can make her comments on it both more matter of fact and more moving:

“At first, my father didn’t want us to go to Italy, because Italy is friends with Germany, which makes it a dangerous place to visit. But we are émigrés, and for émigrés all countries are dangerous.”

The high drama of exile is mixed with her own childish adventures, such as when she unwisely acquires two guinea pigs. The perils of moving from city to city come to include the absence of other children to play with.

The novel is slightly weakened by its lack of as natural conclusion. It was first published in 1938 and therefore cannot access either the war’s beginning or end, leaving it with an unfinished feeling. As Hofmann suggests, the journey to America and back seems an unnecessary addition to a novel about European exile, as do its comic aspect and more journalistic tone. Having said that, this remains a clear-sighted glimpse into the world of refugees and a reminder that Europe has its own history of those who have fled from oppression in search of safety.

Swimming Home

August 2, 2012

It’s a joy to find Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home on the Man Booker longlist, not because I had marked it down as one of the books of the year (I hadn’t read it before the list was announced, though had got as far as owning it), but because Levy seems to be a genuinely interesting writer who has been working below the radar (okay, my radar) for a number of years now (first novel: 1986)who has teamed up with an exciting new publisher to produce something that deserves the wider attention. To put it another way, she’s neither an established name who doesn’t need the publicity or a one hit wonder landed lucky with their first novel.

But this isn’t about Man Booker, it’s about Swimming Home. In many ways, it’s a typically English novel about some nice middle class people who go on holiday (and it goes a bit wrong). There’s a poet (Joe Jacobs) married to a war journalist (Isabel) with their neglected teenage daughter (Nina), sharing a villa with a couple they don’t even like (Mitchell and Laura) with money worries. A retired doctor (Madeleine Sheridan) watches from a nearby balcony. Luckily the back cover (and Tom McCarthy’s introduction) tells us this is subversive (meaning you won’t sympathise with any of the characters) and Levy throws a damaged young woman into the mix, Kitty Finch – even her name suggests she is at war with herself. Finch is there as a result of an obsession (connection she would probably say – she feels his poems are ‘conversations’ with her) with Joe and quickly presents him with a poem of her own she wants him to read. Her entrance is dramatic – her naked body floating in the pool when the holiday-makers arrive – a scene that will be echoed in the novel’s conclusion. Her nudity is used throughout to unsettle.

It seems Isabel allows Kitty to stay in the hope Joe will sleep with her and give her the final excuse she needs to leave him. Her effect, however, is even more profound – she also shares with Joe a history of depression (which he has written about in his poetry) and has recently stopped her medication:

“…his teenaged years had been tranquilised into a one-season pharmaceutical mist. Or as he had suggested in his most famous poem, now translated into twenty-three languages: a bad fairy made a deal with me, ‘give me your history and I will give you something to take it away.’”

As well as asserting the novel’s subversive tag, the blurb also claims it provides ‘a merciless gaze at the insidious harm that depression can have on apparently stable, well-turned-out people.’ If by ‘merciless’ it means that all the characters are there to be laughed at, then that is certainly true and for those who like their humour cruel (sorry, dark) there is plenty to be had here. The characters, however, veer too much towards satire to reveal much about the nature of depression. If not satirical, Joe’s history (parents killed in the Holocaust) seems a lazy reason to explain his unhappiness; similarly the influence of numerous war zones on Isabel seems phoned in from other novels. Conversely, Kitty’s background in botany seems to be an attempt to add a veneer of character onto her madness. Her effect on Joe is largely ‘explained’ through gaps in the narrative.

Having said that, the novel is skilfully written, with Levy slipping from character to character and unsettling the reader the way the characters feel unsettled (‘FFF,’ as Joe would say). It is also tightly structured and reads lightly like a comedy of manners, keeping its darker side largely hidden until the reader looks back – the very thing the novel warns against.