Me and Kaminski by Daniel Kehlmann trans Carol Brown Janeway

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Sebastian Zollner : is there a more unappealing narrator in the whole of literature? If there is, I haven’t been able to think who it is.

We first meet Kehlmann’s narrator and protagonist on a train journey and even though we don’t discover his name until p19 , his character becomes apparent pretty quickly. He is vain, rude, self-regarding and unkind ….  and this is a non exhaustive list. We also get a hint that he is physically unattractive as well following is aggressive confrontation with the train conductor.

But surely, I said, it’s the very least one can expect from a conductor. He wasn’t a conductor , he said, he was a train escort. I said I really didn’t care. He asked me what I meant. I said I really didn’t care what the job was called, it was superfluous anyway.He said he wasn’t going to let himself be insulted by me, I should watch out,he might just bust me in the chops.He could try, I said, I was going to file a complaint in any case, and I wanted his name. He wasn’t going to do any such thing, he said, and what’s more I stank and I was getting a bald spot. Then he turned and went away cursing.

I shut the door to the toilet and took a worried look in the mirror. Of course there was no bald spot; where on earth did that ape get an idea like that?

Zollner has been commissioned to write a biography of a once famous painter, Manuel Kaminski, or has he ? Nothing is quite what it seems in this supremely comic novel.

Kaminski was a protegé of Matisse, well sort of. After leaving Matisse, Kaminski returned to Paris and held a large exhibition of his work, that flopped. Kaminski was then struck blind and overnight his paintings became collectable and their value skyrocketed before he fell  back into obscurity.

Kehlmann has much fun with the pretensions of the worlds of art collection and criticism.

“Then Chromatic Light, the Walker, the street scenes. At first sight, fabulous. But not exactly subtle, thematically speaking.And let’s be honest if people didn’t know about him going blind…..” He shrugged.” You’ve seen the pictures themselves?”

I hesitated. I had thought about flying to New York, but it was quite expensive and beside – what were art books for? “Of course.”

Zollner foists himself on Kaminski ,now living a reclusive life in the care of his daughter. Oblivious to any hostility , Zollner then proceeds to sneak around Kaminski’s residence, studio and life before letting slip that Therese, the love of Kaminski’s life, is not dead as he believed her to be. Together Zollner and Kaminski embark on a fugitive road trip to allow Manuel to see her one last time before he dies.

Sebastian’s lack of self-knowledge is the mirror through which the world is reflected in the novel. What is the true value of art or love, what is the significance of memory are just some of the questions Kehlmann plays with here.

The words German and comic novel are, perhaps, not often juxtaposed but this is a very funny book cleverly constructed  and Zollner is an inspired creation.

This is my second and final review for German Lit Month. As usual, I had planned to read and blog more but real life got in the way. I have managed to track down a second hand copy of the Short Stories of Heinrich Böll, whose work I loved when I was studying German, and a read of Büddenbrooks is long overdue for me but hess are projects that will have to wait until 2015. I am definitely going to read some more Kehlmann as well.

 

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

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Crooked Heart tells the tale of Noel Bostock, twice abandoned and then evacuated in the mass exodus from London of September 1939, he finds himself billeted with Vera Sedge and her hapless son , Donald, in St Albans.

This book came as an unexpected pleasure to me. I had wondered what I might make of it. Instead it is a refreshingly light-hearted and warm hearted tale , very similar in atmosphere to The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day- Lewis.

Evans gives us a picture of wartime London not often acknowledged.One in which some men are actively trying to avoid being called up and are willing to pay to do so ; one in which bombed-out houses are ransacked for hidden valuables and air-raid wardens collude with the thieves.

It is hard to believe today how little attention was paid to the welfare of the child evacuees wrenched away from home and sent to live with strangers. No background checks were done on the hosts who were selected by the authorities on the grounds of perceived available bed space. Children were stood in a church or school hall to be chosen by the  hosts. Just like my father at that time, Noel finds himself unchosen at the end of the session and so is marched round to a local household and foisted on Vera. Luckily she is a much more benign guardian than the woman my poor Dad ended up with and together Noel and Vee embark on a series of adventures around the N London suburbs.

Evans captures entirely the bewilderment of a child like Noel. Already orphaned, he is removed from the care of his godmother , Mattie, as she descends into dementia only to be parachuted into a life with strangers. Although narrated, the story is seen through Noel’s eyes and therefore will probably appeal to the ‘ young adult’ market as well.

Noel stood by the side of the lane, next to Ada, and watched the billeting officer talk to the scrawny women in the headscarf. He was so tired that his eyes kept closing and then jerking open again, so that the scene jerked forward like a damaged film.

‘…..and you get ten and sixpence a week,’ he heard the billeting officer say.’ More if he’s a bed-wetter.’

She looks nice,’ said Ada hopefully. She had said this about every housewife they’d seen that day, and they’d probably seen a hundred. After a morning in the Mason’s Hall, during which the smaller and prettier children had been picked off, a crocodile of the plain and badly dressed had been marched from door to door in a widening spiral, gradually leaving the centre of the town behind.

India Knight has called Crooked Heart the best book she has read in 2014. I found it a welcome change to the usually downbeat atmosphere of modern fiction. I defy you not to have a tear in your eye by the end of it.

Crooked Heart is published by Doubleday. My thanks to Alison Barrow for the review copy.

 

In Times Of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge

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9th November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and so it seemed fitting to review a book dealing with East Germany for German Lit Month.

In Times Of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (trans. Anthea Bell) is described in the blurb on the jacket as :’The intertwining of love, life and politics under the GDR regime’ and had been sitting on my TBR for some time.

The book spans the years 1953 to 2001and follows the fortunes of the Umnitzer/Powileit clan.In many respects it resembles Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks in that it follows a family during a period of social and political upheaval and is built around the birthday celebrations of the patriarch Wilhelm. On 1st October 1989 Wilhelm is celebrating his 90th birthday. A large party has been arranged at which Wilhelm must not find out that his grandson has just fled to the West.

The family consists of Wilhelm Powileiter who is the second husband of Charlotte ; Charlotte’s son by her first marriage, Kurt, and his Russian wife, Irina, whose mother Nadyeshda Ivanova, has come to live with them. Finally we have Alexander (Sasha) and Markus, Kurt’s son and grandson.

Ostensibly Wilhelm is a successful man by GDR standards. A Party stalwart from the times of the Weimar Republic, he has served the Party in Russia and Mexico before returning to the ‘ new’ Germany in 1953. As the story unfolds, however, we discover that all is not as it seems.

The narrative doesn’t follow a conventional timeline. We hop backwards and forwards in time and switch from character to character, each giving their own point of view. This meant it took a while for me to be able to follow events. There is, helpfully, a list of characters at the start of the book and the style does have the effect of giving a panoramic view of life in the GDR and the aftermath of its break-up.

Wilhelm’s marriage to Charlotte is a sham, as is the myth of his service to the Party and state. Kurt’s own marriage to Irina is strained and built on half truths and things unspoken.Alexander has a difficult relationship with his parents and his own son, Markus.Markus, a young teenager in November 1989, finds life difficult in post-Wall Germany. Charlotte longs for her life in Mexico and is haunted by the fate of her brother under the Nazis and her other son, Werner, killed in Russia.

The secrets which bind the family together mirror the lies of the East German state, where history is constantly being twisted to suit the ruling party’s ends. Kurt reflects on the political speech given in Wilhelm’s honour :

Nothing in the address really corresponded to the facts, thought Kurt, still clapping; Wilhelm had not been a ‘founding member”of the Party (he was originally a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, and didn’t join the Communist Party of Germany until the two united), nor was it true that he had been wounded during the Kapp Putsch ( he had indeed been wounded but not in 1920 during the putsch, in 1921 during the so-called March action, a catastrophic failure, but of course that didn’t suit the biography of a class warrior so well). Worse than these little half-truths, however, was the large amount left out, worse was the egregious  silence about what Wilhelm was doing in the twenties. At the time – as Kurt remembered very well- Wilhelm had been a staunch champion of the United Front policy prescribed by the Soviet Union, which denigrated the Social Democrat leaders as “social fascists” and even presented them – by comparison to the Nazis- as the greater of two evils.

All this sounds very turgid and depressing however there are some great comic moments , not least the ‘ climax of Wilhelm’s birthday path. Irina’s mother , who has never managed to master German provides much humour too as she observes a people whose ways she cannot understand ;

Yes, of course she’d wanted to learn German when she came to Germany, she , she used to sit down and bone up on the German letters every day, but then, when she knew all the letters by heart, when she knew the entire German alphabet, she made an astounding discovery : she still didn’t know German. So then she gave up, it was pointless, such a difficult, mysterious language, the words scratched your throat like dry bread, Koontentak you said on meeting someone, good day, and Affeederseyn, until we meet again, on parting, or the other way round , AffeederseynKootentak, such a lot of trouble to take over just saying hello and goodbye. 

The novel is only 308pp long but covers a lot of ground. The book ends as it starts, with Alexander. There are no easy conclusions to be drawn but he does, at last, appear to have reached a sort of peace.

In Times Of Fading Light is published by Faber & Faber

Book Review : Some Luck by Jane Smiley

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Some Luck is Pulitzer Prize winning Jane Smiley’s latest novel. It is the first part in a trilogy following the Langdon/Vogel family for a century beginning in 1921 with parts 2 and 3 to be published in the UK in May and October 2015 respectively.

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy via Pan Macmillan and Netgalley and also to attend the ‘ Meet The Author’ event at the London Review Bookshop on 4th November.

As Some Luck opens we meet Walter Langdon and his young wife Rosanna. Walter has not long since returned from Europe and WW1 and has bought his farm with the help of a large bank loan.Rosanna is a local girl but of German Catholic stock and their first child Frank is just a few months old.

The book spans the years 1921-1953 with each year being given an individual chapter. During this time we get to know not just Walter and Rosanna but their 6 children born at various points and the wider family, in particular Rosanna’s younger inter Eloise.

We learn a lot about farming. The novel takes us through the dust bowl years during which time Frank sees his harvests dwindle and his loan looms large.

But it was no secret to Walter as he drove the tractor from one end of the twenty-acre cornfield to the other that a tractor was a pact with the devil. How could it be that when they woke up one morning they found dust caked on the west side of the house, and the air so thick you had to wear a wet bandana outside, keep all the windows shut, and wipe the inside sills ant yaw? Iowa prided itself on no being Oklahoma, but how much of a sign did they need?

Towards the end of the book new methods are being introduced into farming with chemical fertilisers and pesticides which perhaps foreshadow the events to come in the next volume.

World events impact as well, most notably WW2. Frank enlists and becomes a sniper. At the end of Some Luck McCarthyism is beginning to cast a shadow perhaps with consequences for Eloise, who has married a left-wing English Jew.

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On 4th November Jane Smiley was skilfully interviewed by journalist Alex Clark who opened the evening by announcing that Some Luck was being hailed at the new ‘Great American Novel’. Smiley rather wryly remarked that this was not the case back home. America was reserving its judgement at this point.

After giving a short reading, Smiley was asked about the structure of this novel. She would categorise it as mainly history and gossip.The novel is centred in Iowa but the family necessarily spread out from there. They engage with historical events . Frank in particular wants to escape and he is always looking for ways to get out. He finds a way to get to High School and to College, before enlisting.

As a novelist though, she was surely in control of her characters and must have planned in which events they would engage and how these would impact on their lives? Smiley laughed. Any novelist who thinks they are in control of their characters has a dead novel.She finds that characters seize and shift a novel by their own energy. She frequently sets to to do one thing then the characters take it their own way. For example in this book it was clear that Frank would go to WW2 but the character took that in his own direction. She didn’t go back and fix stuff later.

Smiley has always been interested in he social and political possibilities of the novel. She grew up reading Dickens, The Scarlet Letter and Giants of The Earth. She is fascinated by the idea of art as a revealer or even as an agent for change. In a novel we share the experiences so we can better understand them.

A novel doesn’t have to be overtly political, this can be done in other ways. The example she would give is Nancy Mitford whose work she greatly admires. She is of the view that Mitford’s work has stood the test of time better than many of her peers as her beliefs are expressed through her characters who voice hilariously funny opinions.

The novel is inherently political because  the relationship between the protaganist and his world must be developed or the reader will abandon it. Her view is that the novel as a form  is born not with Don Quixote but with Madame de La Fayatte’s Princess of Cleves. The princess has an inner life which we share. By the time we get to Pamela, even the servant girl has an inner life.

She was asked about her research for this trilogy and the conclusions she had reached about the state of society by the end of it. She had read the New York Times archive fairly extensively. The conclusion she had reached was that we were in deep shit. She had a pretty good idea of when the shit  had hit the fan………but we would have to read the books and draw our own conclusions.

She was asked about her views on publishing today. Earlier in the evening, Smiley had explained that she regarded her first 2 or 3 books as practice novels, but that they had appeared in the 1980s when that had been possible. She thinks that publishing is in a state of flux. There are perhaps more ways to get your work out there, and she gave the example of self-publishing, but not necessarily more ways up. Publishing has always been idiosyncratic in her view.

Her daily writing routine is one of interruptions and chaos. She has 4 horses and 3 dogs.Her day begins with reading the paper, eating granola and looking at the internet.She will then go to her barn and ride. She enjoys eating and cooking so starts looking forward to dinner at an early stage in the day.

She always commits to a certain number of words per day. She finds getting out with the horses prevents her from getting stuck. Her study has 2 doors and a telephone and the dogs are constantly in and out. She is not a writer who needs solitude.

She was asked by a member of the audience for her views on the ‘great’ American authors like Roth, Mailer and Bellow.Apart from Updike , she has not read much of their work and is not a huge fan of what she would call the WW2 generation. She tells her students that in fact your best readers and critics are your peers and not the generation that preceded you. She certainly found this to be the case herself.

I then asked which books she felt had influenced her the most. She thinks that the books you read as a teenager have the greatest impact and so would say David Copperfield and The Giants Of The Earth. Later, when she was researching  13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel ( her readers’ and writers’ handbook) she came to admire Zola and Trollope.

The most important thing to remember when writing is that no novel is perfect. Even The Good Soldier is not perfect as the protagonist does not even sound American! She always has in her mind a sign a friend keeps above her desk ” No-one asked you to write this novel’

Novels are inherently imperfect but each novelist thinks they can do better.

Some Luck was published by Mantle on 6th November.

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Book Review :Amnesia by Peter Carey

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Peter Carey’s latest book is one that I have some mixed feelings about.

Felix Moore is a discredited left-wing journalist. Brought down by the Establishment and successfully sued for defamation he is shunned, bankrupted and unemployed.

As the doors of the mainstream media closed to anyone unworldly enough to write the truth, I still published ‘Lo-Tech Blog’, a newsletter printed on acid paper which was read by the entire Canberra Press Gallery and all of parliament besides. Don’t ask how we paid our electricity bill.

He friend Woody Wodonga Townes comes to his rescue employing him to write the biography of ‘ Angel’ ,a  hacker who has released a worm into the computer systems of the Australian and US prison systems ,unlocking the doors and freeing the inmates.

Felix sees the Tolstoyan possibilities of this when he discovers that Angel is none other than Gaby Ballieux, daughter of Celine Ballieux and Sando Quinn, classmates of his in University in Melbourne.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Is there a more famous line in all of literature? Is there a greater writer than Tolstoy? Only in some lost corner of the earth, in a shack above the Hawkesbury for instance, might you find a winecaked fool thinking to himself – hang on Tolstoy, not so slick: it may not be a case of either/or.

Felix has long been addressed by what he calls The Great Amnesia – Australia’s complicated relationship with the US which, in his view, produced a CIA plot to bring down the Whitlam government in 1975 when the continued use of the Pine Gap listening facility was under threat.

We were naive of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them, of course. Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They had saved us from the Japanese . We sacrificed the lives of our beloved sons in Korea, then Vietnam. It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.

So we are taken on a romp through recent Australian political history, starting with the Brissy Riots during WW2, when American servicemen were attacked by an enraged local mob, and ending with a Wikileaks inspired plot to expose all that is wrong with global corporate control.

This is a novel that Carey clearly cares deeply about and there is much to enjoy here.Felix rails against the hypocrisy of the current Australian government,

In Lo-Tech Blog, I revealed the Australian press’s cowardly reporting of the government lies about the refugees aboard the ill-fated Oolong.

‘I can’t comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard’ said our Prime Minister.

Once again, like 1975, here was a lie of Goebbelseque immensity. The fourth estate made the whole country believe the refugees were animal and swine. Many think so still.

Yet the refugees belonged here. They would have been at home with the best of us. We have a history of courage and endurance, of inventiveness in the face of isolation and mortal threat. At the same time, alas, we have displayed this awful level of cowardice, brown-nosing, criminality, mediocrity and nest-feathering.

Felix is a classic Carey creation and his acerbic commentary on modern Australian life and self-deprecating humour are the joys of the book.

I did not however find this a particularly easy book to read, in fact at times I struggled to continue.

Firstly, the many cultural references were entirely lost on me. The book is largely set in Melbourne with frequent references to particular suburbs the significance of which are not explained.I suspect that several of the characters are representations of Australian public figures, again I floundered.

Felix’s voice is strong and engaging but the book , in part, is effectively narrated by Celine and then Gaby, as he is given access to tape recordings of their version of events. The frequent changes in voice together with leaps to and fro in time made following the events extremely difficult.

Finally, one of Carey’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to entirely inhabit the worlds he creates whether that is Dickensian London in Jack Maggs; the 19th Century outback in Oscar and Lucinda ; or the web of international art fraud in Fake. Here he convincingly creates the world of the early computer gamers turned hackers. Computer geeks, however, do not make engaging narrators . They are introverted and spend long periods of time closeted with other like-minded obsessives speaking a language that most of us find hard to understand.

I desperately wanted to enjoy this book more than I actually did. Carey is one of only three writers to have won the Booker Prize twice but I fear Amnesia does not quite measure up to his earlier works.

My thanks to Netgalley and Faber and Faber for the review copy.