Archive for December, 2020

Best Books of 2020 Part 3

December 29, 2020

Finally, here are my favourite books from 2020:

Firstly, this was the year I finally got round to reading Bae Suh. Untold Night and Day (translated by Deborah Smith) is a beguiling and disconcerting reading experience which is difficult to summarise. Over its four parts, it tells numerous stories that may also be one story, a text of incessant echoes from characters with uncanny similarities to the repetition of specific lines. What begins as a quest for identity ends up questioning whether certainty is possible

Identity is also important in Gabriela Cabezon Camara’s The Adventures of China Iron (translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona McIntyre). Everything from Argentinian national identity to sexual discovery, colonialism to class, is covered in the guise of a rip-roaring adventure. The novel wins its place on energy alone, and is another reminder of the excellence of Charco Press. It is also the only Booker International long-listed book among my favourites, which suggests I think it should have won

Next is a book I freely admit is unlikely to feature in anyone else’s best of the year – Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by Michael Hofmann). As a long-time admirer of Stamm, I found this one of his best yet. As is often the case with his work, it begins with a single decision, when our narrator, Christoph, breaks up with his girlfriend, Magdalena. On this occasion, however, Christoph later discovers another couple whose lives seem to exactly replicate his and Magdalena’s. How he reacts to these doppelgangers makes for a fascinating exploration of how we tell the stories of our lives

Another writer I particularly admire is Annie Ernaux, whose work, thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions, is now reaching a wider audience in the UK. This year saw the translation, by Alison L Strayer, of A Girl’s Story. Here she tells of her early sexual experiences at a summer camp, but, as Ernaux explains, she does not regard the story she tells as ‘hers’ in the sense we would normally understand with biographical writing: “I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo.” What I love about Ernaux’s work is how she forensically captures the details of the time alongside truths of human experience which remain as insightful today as ever

Finally, Vigdis Hjoth’s Long Live the Post Horn! (translated by Charlotte Barslund) stood out for me this year as much as Will and Testament did last year. I was transfixed by the way a story of mid-life crisis became one of transformation and hope via the fight to preserve the postal service. It was a reminder that regarding ‘mental health’ as something entirely abstract, existing only in our heads, is a dangerous mistake. Interestingly, it joined the other four books in offering a version of hope in a year which needed it more than most.

Best Books of 2020 Part 2

December 27, 2020

For part two of my favourite books of 2020 I’m going to focus on those books which bridge the gap between the past and the present – that is, those books which, often after many years of waiting, have finally made it into English this year

The first of these, originally published in 1948 and translated by Joyce Zonana, is Henri Bosco’s Malicroix in which the narrator, Martial, must live in the solitary residence of his newly deceased great uncle for three months in order to inherit. The house is on a remote island in a wild part of the country, complete with a looming, silent servant and an obsequious lawyer who seems less than keen that Martial should be successful. This is a novel of mood and atmosphere, from its strong sense of place to its unremitting tension – a novel the reader lives in alongside the narrator

Another French writer whose work resurfaced this year was Jean Giono, in the shape of his Occupation Journal, originally published in France in 1995 though written between 1943 and 1944, and now translated by Jody Gladding. It was particularly interesting reading this during lockdown as Giono was experiencing much the same at the time – unable to travel and faced with an uncertain level of risk: “More and more I am immersed in a very great solitude,” he tells us. By its very nature, there is no great structure to the journal, but it is full of insights into both the occupation and Giono’s life as a writer

Also set during wartime – in this case the Spanish Civil War – Ana Maria Matute’s The Island appeared in a new translation from Laura Lonsdale. Narrated by fourteen-year-old Matia, who is staying with her grandmother as her mother is dead and her father is fighting, it is a coming-of-age story steeped in the oppressive sunlight of the island. Matute uses the setting to show the civil war in microcosm as it becomes an excuse for age-old prejudices to resurface. Matia’s attempts to understand and negotiate these make for a gripping picture of growing up

In Magda Szabo’s Abigail, originally published in 1970 and now translated by Len Rix, we also find a young girl, Gina, caught up in a conflict she does not understand. Set in Hungary during the Second World War, Gina finds herself sent away by her father, a General, to a boarding school where he cannot visit her and only rarely makes contact. Instead she must rely on the mysterious ‘Abigail’ to protect her – a statue to which pupils traditionally confide their problems. What begins as a typical boarding school novel soon becomes a thrilling story of wartime resistance

Finally, set in Germany in the 1930s and also featuring a child narrator, Gert Hofmann’s Veilchenfeld, originally published in 1986, was translated this year by Eric Mace-Tessler. Here the title character is an elderly Jewish philosopher who is increasingly persecuted in the course of the novel, much to the bewilderment of the young narrator. Hofmann brilliantly demonstrates the small cruelties which will ultimately lead to genocide by keeping a tight focus on one small town. A moving individual story, as well as a warning.

Best Books of 2020 Part 1

December 21, 2020

Rather than focusing only on what’s new, I thought I would begin my books of 2020 with those older volumes which had stood out for me this year. (As I haven’t yet decided the winner of the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996, I have excluded the long-listed books from this category).

My one year sprint through all of Muriel Spark’s novels has turned into a three year marathon, but, in further vindication of continuing, I found it difficult to select which of her later novels I had most enjoyed. In the end I decided on Symposium, her dinner party novel, where an exquisite layer of social satire lies above robbery and murder, which, in turn, rests on madness and hints of satanic influence – Jane Austen via Dennis Wheatley. Its best line is perhaps the suggestion that the vows of marriage, made under the influence of love, are “like confessions obtained under torture.”

Of contrasting tone, Agota Kristof’s Yesterday (translated by David Watson) is a bleak vision of grinding poverty, both in childhood and adulthood. “The full horror of my present life stares me in the face,” is a fair summary of much of it. The narrator works in a factory, the kind of occupation which so rarely features in literature. Focusing particularly on the immigrant community, it briefly suggests the possibility of redemption before dashing the narrator’s, and the reader’s, hopes. Not for the faint-heated, but unforgettable.

My great discovery, in terms of older writers, this year has been Marguerite Yourcenar. A Coin in Nine Hands uses the composition classic (‘imagine a day in the life of a penny’) to paint a portrait of fascist Italy. The plot revolves around a failed assassination attempt but the real joy is in the extensive cast of characters who flit in and out of each other’s stories. Each one is like a disparate note which together play an increasingly melancholy tune.

Another unexpected surprise was Antonio de Benedetto’s Zama, translated by Esther Allen; unexpected not because it isn’t widely regarded as a classic of Latin American literature, but because I hadn’t expected it to be so entertaining. The catalyst for its energy and verve is the unlikeable narrator – arrogant, short-tempered, unfeeling – who somehow wins the reader’s sympathy by the final pages of what turns out to be his tragic life. As with many tragic figures, he owns his faults regardless of his circumstances, winning our reluctant admiration.

Finally (and not yet reviewed) Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes proved to be all that others had claimed, superficially charming but with a dark interior. Full of wonderfully quotable lines (“Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves about her like the fingers of a hand”), the novel is both the flower and the serpent under it. Its author may well become the Muriel Spark of 2021.

The Emigrants

December 14, 2020

W G Sebald’s The Emigrants, originally published in 1993, was the first of his books to appear in English, translated by Michael Hulse in 1996, and therefore eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of that year. It tells the story of four men, each in some way an emigrant, each in some way connected to Sebald: one is a distant relation, another his old teacher, and two he meets, one might say, by accident. In fact, the apparently accidental nature of the narrative, the randomness of the construction (the first two chapters are much shorter than then third and fourth), disguise a deeper-lying unity which builds through the emotional ripples which run through the book.

Although Sebald’s appearance in the narrative makes it something of a memoir, the author is careful to avoid seeming the centre of attention, where instead he places his subject and circles round them drawing ever closer to the heart of their story. In the first chapter he meets Dr Henry Selwyn, the estranged husband of his landlady. Selwyn, once a doctor, now spends his days tending his garden and caring for three horses which he has saved from the knacker’s yard. Eventually Selwyn shares the story of his childhood emigration from Lithuania to England, which seems to be affecting him more intensely as he gets older. A parallel story of a friend he had to part from in Switzerland when the First World War broke out provides an echo of that primal separation:

“Even the separation from Elli, whom I had met at Christmas in Berne and married after the war, did not cause me remotely as much pain as the separation from Naegeli.”

Later Sebald hears that Selwyn has taken his own life, an act he has clearly been considering for some time as one day the author and his wife find him testing the shotgun he eventually uses to find out if it is still in working order.

Paul Bereyter, Sebald’s second subject, was once his teacher (in the 1950s), though we discover that before the Second World War it was difficult for him to find employment as he had a Jewish grandparent. Despite this, he fights in the German army. The chapter opens with his suicide, which prompts Sebald to discover more about his life. Even as a child Sebald is able to perceive something of the sadness in Bereyter’s life:

“…at any time – in the middle of a lesson, at break, or on one of our outings – he might stop of sit down somewhere, alone and apart for us all, as if he, who was always in good spirits and cheerful, was in fact desolation itself.”

It is during the 1930s, a young man in love, and at the start of his career, that everything changes:

“The wonderful future he had dreamt of that summer collapsed without a sound like the proverbial house of cards.”

Not only must he travel abroad in order to work, but his father’s business is attacked and his father dies soon after, quickly followed by his mother. As with Selwyn, as he grows older these experiences affect him more profoundly.

The chapter on Ambrose Adelwarth, Sebald’s great uncle, I found the least successful in the book, perhaps because, as Sebald’s relative, there seems to be an excess of information, or perhaps because his story seems the most tenuously connected to the book’s themes. Adelwarth himself is not Jewish but he travels the world with Cosmo Solomon (it seems to be suggested they may be more than just ‘companions’) and then becomes butler to Solomon’s family when he dies. He, too, is an emigrant, having left Germany, with much of his family, for America.

The final chapter concerns Max Ferber, and is apparently based on the painter Frank Auerbach. Like Auerbach, Ferber was sent to Britain from Germany as a child and his parents later died in a concentration camp. Sebald meets him in Manchester when he first arrives in England but at this time Ferber gives him an “extremely cursory version of his life.” It is only years later he come across an article on Ferber which reveals that he arrived in England as a fifteen-year-old in 1939.

“The article went on to say that Ferber’s parents, who delayed their own departure from Germany for a number of reasons, were taken from Munich to Riga in November 1941, in one of the first deportation trains, and were subsequently murdered there.”

This leads Sebald to return to Manchester and speak to Ferber again, the resultant interview forming the rest of the chapter. Once again he unearths a past that was never really buried.

The Emigrants is a wonderful book. Sebald is adept at building from small details the portraits within, just as a painter might from the smallest brush strokes. He is also skilled at creating a powerful sense of time and place, both when he is revealing his subject’s past, but also when he describes moments in his own life. The intermingling of his text with photographs speaks of both these strengths; that they are uncaptioned suggests the fleeting images of memory with which he is so concerned. It is certainly arguable that, in The Emigrants, he creates a new form, one that would win him the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize seven years later in 2002 for Austerlitz, and eventually provoke the prize which all writers secretly long for, his own adjective. More importantly, The Emigrants remains a subtle and immersive reading experience.

A Luminous Republic

December 7, 2020

“Violence is always there,” Andres Barba has said in interview, “it’s the ultimate agent of social destabilization.” And so it proves in his latest short novel, A Luminous Republic, translated by Lisa Dillman. In the novel, the small town of San Cristobal finds itself visited by a group of thirty-two children who we know, from the opening sentence, will die. The narrator, who had recently joined the Department of Social Affairs at the time, attempts to make sense of what happened years later, but struggles to find easy answers. Where, for example, did the children come from? When did they arrive?

“It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when our eyes started to become accustomed to them or to know whether the first few times we saw them we were shocked.”

Their poverty is different from that of the indigenous Nee children, who “were poor and illiterate in the same way the jungle was green,” the narrator concluding that “unlike so-called normal kids, they were rightful heirs to nothing.” They roam the streets and steal in various smaller groups and without any clear leader:

“Someone once compared the children’s appearance to the fascinating synchronised flight of a starling murmuration.”

Their behaviour is also compared to “an organism’s cells,” and, when the narrator catches hold of one, “it wasn’t a human being in my hand but some sort of giant insect.” There is something inhuman about the way they act, and their interaction, which takes place in a language they seem to have invented. They are both a “benign presence and a terrible omen.” Little is done about them until the attack on a supermarket, unplanned and uncoordinated, but resulting in two deaths and three wounded:

“But there’s something harder to count than the victims, something infinitely more palpable and definite, a feeling akin to terror: the conviction that this was the first step of an irreversible process.”

The novel focuses not only on the narrator’s personal involvement in events, but also includes research undertaken later: it is both a confession and an investigation, having the emotional depth of the former while at the same time the analytical scope of the latter, accessing the theories of others. On a personal level, the narrator questions his own actions, particularly his attempts to gain information regarding the children’s whereabouts:

“I tortured a boy, for two days, to get him to give his friends away.”

At one point he meets a man who claims that “everyone had their own witness. Someone that we secretly want to convince, someone all of our actions are directed towards, someone we can’t stop secretly talking to.” This is, of course, a reasonable understanding of any first person narrative, but in this case the reader does often feel like a witness to events, asked to weigh up guilt and innocence. After the attack the children disappear, but they are not forgotten. For the adults they become an abstract threat:

“By losing their realness the thirty-two had morphed into the perfect monster.”

For the children of the town they are remembered in a different way, as they put their ears to the ground to hear them, and soon they, too, are disappearing, making the hunt even more urgent.

Barba’s novel is a modern horror, drawing on both fairy-tales where the children are frequently victims (but often capable of violent retaliation as in Hansel and Gretel) and newer tropes where children are seen as in some way alien, such as The Midwich Cuckoos. Here we question not only the children but society’s response. As the narrator says at one point, “often we submit to the prevailing morality only because the truth seems less plausible than the beliefs we adopt.” We see small town corruption, indifference and distrust. Helping the vulnerable is easy when the targets of our charity are passive and malleable, but, as the narrator says, these children “made us lose faith in the religion of childhood.” They are not what the town wants them to be and therefore town cannot help them, and attitude that exists far beyond San Cristobal.

In the final chapter, the reason for novel’s title becomes clear but, rather than providing answers, this only leaves the reader with more questions; a final image which will haunt us just as it does the narrator. Though not for the faint-hearted, A Luminous Republic is a powerful parable of dissonance and guilt which is likely to leave its readers both scared and scarred.

Aiding and Abetting

December 2, 2020

Muriel Spark has always been a class conscious writer – though the class she has largely concerned herself with is the very rich – and this is never more obvious than in her penultimate novel, Aiding and Abetting. The novel is inspired by the Lord Lucan case (which, as Spark says, she has “absorbed creatively and metamorphosed into what I have written”), a classic example of the archaic English class system, as Lucan, after murdering his children’s nanny and attempting to murder his wife, is able to escape justice (and, it is thought, the country) with the help of his friends.

Spark begins the novel with Lucan’s visit to a psychiatrist, Hildegard Wolf. Wolf is immediately suspicious when he declares “I am the missing Lord Lucan,” as she is already seeing another client, Walker, who says he is Lucan:

“She was currently treating another patient who claimed, convincingly, to be the long-missing lord. She suspected collusion.”

The two Lucans are typical of Spark, raising the question of how, after all this time, anyone can be certain which is the genuine article:

“If one of us were caught, it would always be the other, the absent Lucan, who would be the real one.”

It is even proposed at one point that neither are real, and “Lucan could be dead while the conspiracies to elude the law continue.” The advantage of pretending to be Lucan lies in collecting “from the aiders and abettors,” those “benefactors” who continue to fund him.

Wolf is prevented from immediately reporting Lucan to the police as she believes he has knowledge of her own background – and, in particular, her time as a fake stigmatic, when she used her menstrual blood to convince gullible Christians that she had curative powers. (Both characters are also connected by blood – Lucan frequently states that there was “so much blood” when he killed the nanny). Spark places the two characters in parallel, though they come from opposite ends of the class spectrum, Wolf’s deceit originating from the fact that “she suddenly got very, very tired of being poor.” Not only are both on the run (Wolf in the sense that she has assumed a new identity, though later in the novel she literally goes on the run by disappearing from Paris), but both were sustained in their crime by the belief of others. Wolf argues that, “I caused miracles. I really did cure these people,” and we are told:

“When she was finally exposed, a great number of her followers, mainly poor people, refused to believe what the newspapers reported.”

Lucan, too, inspires belief in others, the rich rather than the poor, and based on class rather than religion. Maria Twickenham, whose husband helped Lucan escape, tells her daughter he got away “on the sheer strength of his own hypnotic act.”

“His proposition was: I am a seventh Earl, I am an aristocrat, therefore I can do what I like, I am untouchable.”

As Lucan tells Wolf, “People like us don’t go to prison,” regarding the murder as “a bungle like any other bungle.” Wolf eventually concludes that “Being an earl, full stop, is madness” in what is perhaps Spark’s finest skewering of the upper classes.

The novel is, of course, filled with hide and seek chases: while Wolf’s boyfriend tries to find Wolf by questioning her patients (she has gone into hiding from Lucan), Maria’s daughter, Lacey, is looking for Lucan, always just one step behind, including following his car unawares for miles. Lucan and Walker also fear that the other will give them the slip as the money begins to run out. As everything comes full circle, Lucan begins to see Walker as an obstacle, and symbol of his bad luck, like his wife:

“Walker was a card to be played in this gambling-den of life; not an ace card, merely a card.”

Spark arranges a suitably ironic fate for Lucan, one that is fitting, as ridiculous as he is, but not silly – Spark is never silly. Spark’s late novels may be lighter, perhaps even warmer, than her middle period, but they have lost none of their wit and power. Her killer instinct remains, and, unlike Lucan, she is not likely to miss the target.