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.

 

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

An Evening With Ian McEwan

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Today sees the UK publication of Ian McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act. On 1st September I attended the Guardian Reader event at The Cadogan Hall at which Ian McEwan was interviewed by journalist and novelist, Jonathan Freedland.

I haven’t read The Children Act as yet . I only picked up my signed copy last night and so I can’t review it at all.  I also can’t say whether this little report of the evening contains any spoilers – I’m just recording some of the things discussed at the event.

McEwan began the evening with a reading from the very beginning of the book (pp1 -8). The main character of The Children Act  is Fiona May, a High Court Judge in the Family Division. At the opening of the book Fiona’s personal life is about to enter a crisis as Jack, her husband of many years, announces his intention to have an affair with ‘ A pretty statistician working on the diminishing probability of a man returning to an embittered wife.’

Jack makes it clear that he doesn’t want the marriage to end but, Fiona wryly reflects ‘ The moment to propose an open marriage was before the wedding, not thirty-five years later,’

Just as her private life goes into turmoil, her professional life becomes challenging when she is asked to preside over two very difficult cases, most particularly a case concerning a teenaged Jehovah’s Witness whose parents are withholding consent to life-saving treatment for him.

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Freedland opened the interview by pointing out the strange coincidence that this book is being published just as the sad news of Ayasha King and his family is all over our TVs and newspapers. McEwan was quick to point out that although that case did involve a Jehovah Witness family it did not , as far as he could tell, involve religion per se. Rather, he thought, it was best described as a ‘cascade of chaos’ .Terrible consequences have been unleashed by pushing bureaucratic buttons and now a poor child is languishing in a hospital without his family.

His novel concerns a rather different scenario of a teenager who knows his own mind and is refusing life saving treatment. The title of the book refers to actual legislation, The Children Act 1989, and the over-riding principle appears on its flyleaf – ‘ …the child’s welfare shall be the courts paramount consideration.’

Over the age of 18 one can refuse medical treatment but where that person is a child, the courts become involved in any dispute  and so we have the collision between the secular mind and sincerely held religious beliefs. We seem to be undergoing  a national period of soul searching concerning the welfare of children at a time in which it has become clear that terrible abuses have occurred .

Freedland pointed out that in the book McEwan seems to be very critical of the role of so called experts in such cases. McEwan agreed that he particularly wanted to highlight the role of Roy Meadows on whose say so more than one woman had been wrongly sent to prison. This was also a failing of the judiciary. Judges can be both brilliant and awful. Terrible miscarriages of justice do occur.

Freedland remarked that he seemed remarkably well disposed towards lawyers. McEwan agreed that lawyers had had a bad press since Shakespeare but he finds that on the whole they speak eloquently and write well. They enjoy jokes about lawyers and he would rather stand in a British court where the separation of powers offers protection against the perversity of whatever government is in power. This, of course, is not the case in many parts of the world.As a lawyer myself, I felt my admiration for him grow!

The language of the best judgements is, he has found, quite extraordinary. He mentioned particularly the judgements of Sir Alan Ward. The tone of these can be both witty and sceptical and the range of historical and philosophical references is vast. Rather like novelists, judges read and criticize  each others work…..and rather like novelists, they are toughest on those who are foolish enough to have left the conversation.

Freedland asked about the significance of Fiona’s childlessness to the novel. The absence of children is something McEwan has written about before and here he referred to A Child In Time where the absence of a particular child is harrowingly described. He feels we are all the owners of the children we once were and carry our own lost childhoods with us. In his view we are still that child to some extent. That was very much in his mind when he wrote A Child In Time.

Fiona has faced a dilemma that many women at work now face, she has delayed having children  and now finds herself without a family. The point of Fiona’s childlessness, though, is that in the boy she finds the hint of the child she never had. Fiona is very intelligent but she is not emotionally articulate.

Freedland then alluded to McEwan’s own brush with the family courts and wondered whether this had in anyway influenced his choice of subject. By way of explanation, McEwan went through a very bitter divorce and custody dispute with his first wife. McEwan found his own experience immensely painful and he doesn’t want to speak or write about it at all. There is a passage in the book where he talks about the ease with which adults persuade themselves that to divorce will be best for their children. He thinks there is an almost consumerist rush for a younger wife or a richer husband which he refers to as moral kitsch.

McEwan was asked about the significance of the world of work in his novels as several feature particular professions. He explained that the background is never the first inspiration for him , it is always the story but that he felt work was extremely important. Work went missing in the modern novel for which he blamed Henry James. James preferred his characters to have a private income so that he could explore the human condition without distraction.  McEwan is not persuaded by this. Work is often the key to our identity, it is where we meet our friends and often our lovers.

He revealed that the professions of airline pilot and architect particularly interest him.He had been thinking of William Golding’s The Spire whilst contemplating the Shard the other evening and wondering whether the building  was a triumph or a disaster ……..he had come to the conclusion that it was actually rather brilliant. Bermondsey needed something like that on its skyline!

He is more and more interested in a form of social realism in the novel, to look at where we are going now and , it seemed to him, work must be part of that. In the 70s he had flirted with the post modern , existentialist style . For example in The Cement Garden he deliberately didn’t say when or where it was……he can now reveal it was Stockwell in 1976! At this time he thinks there was a mistaken belief that  not specifying the time or place made the work more universal. That he now rejects, you only have to think of supremely regional novels such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary to see that that is not the case.

McEwan was then asked about the length of this novel, like several of his others it is short at 55 thousand words. Did he feel that a story is best told concisely? He joked that he resented the implication that he couldn’t write a long novel , it is almost as if we were discussing sexual prowess. At one time of course we didn’t know the word count of a piece of writing, now it is there at the bottom of the screen.

He finds it interesting to move between the space and patience of a longer novel and a shorter one ,where necessarily there is a paring down of sub plot.He thinks Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and James Joyce were masters of the art of the short novel. In fact  the close of this novel pays tribute to Joyce’s The Dead. He thinks this is the supreme example of a novella and he couldn’t end without acknowledging it.

The evening was then opened up to questions from the floor and I have chosen just a few of the ones I found most interesting as I am mindful of my own word count.

A member of the audience revealed that he had studied Enduring Love for A-Level and he wondered what McEwan felt about being a set text author and whether there were any of his books he felt were unsuitable for study in school.

He does have mixed feelings about being ‘forced ‘ to read a book and wonders whether any of those readers will ever come back to him. His own son had studied Enduring Love and he found it most disconcerting to find notes lying round the house starting ‘ McEwan thinks…. McEwan is trying to say…..’. He also told us that on one occasion he had given his son the benefit of his thoughts to help with an essay. His son had come home with a D grade !!

In his opinion,  his first two volumes of short stories and The Comfort Of Strangers are unsuitable to study in school. They are so dark and depressing and you have enough to contend with when you are sixteen. He is really not sure about being a ‘ set’ author, it makes him feel dead.

A female member of the audience asked him about his favourite female authors since often his protagonists are female but all the authors he had mentioned were male.

He is very fond o the writing of Rose Tremain. He is also re-kindling his affection for Virginia Woolf. He fell out with her in Atonement but recently visited Charleston and felt her presence. His disenchantment was caused by what he thought at that time was a lack of backbone in the narrative although he feels differently now. He particularly recommended her Diaries.

He was then asked about Will Self’s article in which Self accused George Orwell of being a mediocrity. McEwan hadn’t read the article so couldn’t comment on it specifically but felt that Orwell was just about as far away from being a mediocrity as it was possible to be. Orwell captured the sensible voice dealing with difficult issues. His ghost can be heard in the voices of James Fenton, Timothy Garton-Ash and his very dear friend Christopher Hitchens, all fine journalists . Orwell of course was the first to bring pop culture under scrutiny.

The evening then ended with some general musings on current affairs.He felt that this summer has seen the darkest news cycle that he can remember. It has turned him into a news junkie……he starts the day with the Today programme, moves through the news channels during the evening , ending with Newsnight. In between he reads all the broadsheets and the New York Times. He may never find the time to write another novel again.

His current project is a screen play, first conceived in 1991 with a neuroscientist friend. It deals with the subject of deep brain stimulation. At the time it was originally written, of course, we didn’t even carry mobile phones but it foresaw in some way Google and the impact of the internet. He wants to see if this can be revived and brought up to date.

This is just a flavour of the evening we also discussed the effect of trauma on the psyche, whether he had read The Goldfinch ( he hadn’t!) and Scottish Independence. It was a fabulous evening , McEwan is an intellectual dazzler and a gifetd raconteur  and was ably coaxed on by Freedland. I am really looking forward to reading The Children Act.

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