thorold goes from April to Shantih in Q2 21

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thorold goes from April to Shantih in Q2 21

Editado: Abr 2, 9:29am

April is the cruellest month, breeding
{...blah, blah, blah...}
Shantih, shantih, shantih.

T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland" (Student edition), 1922

Abr 2, 9:19am

Welcome to my Q2 thread!

Editado: Abr 2, 11:57am

2021 Q1 stats:

I finished 36 books in Q1 (59 in 2020 Q4).

Author gender: M 24, F 12: 66% M ( Q4: 73% M)

Language: EN 19, NL 4, DE 9, FR 1, ES 3 : 52% EN (Q4 68% EN)
Of the English books, 2 were translated from Icelandic, and 1 each from Danish, Czech and Serbo-Croat

8 books (25%) were linked to the "Small nations" theme read

Publication dates from 1894 to 2019, mean 1992, median 2006; 9 books were published in the last five years.

Formats: library 0, physical books from the TBR 19, physical books from the main shelves (re-reads) 2, audiobooks 8, paid ebooks 5, other free/borrowed 2 — 52% from the TBR (Q4: 53% from the TBR)

30 unique first authors (1.2 books/author; Q4 1.26)

By gender: M 21, F 9 : 70% M (Q4 79% M)
By main country: UK 5, NL 4, DE 4, DD 2, US 3, and no more than two from any other country!

TBR pile evolution:
22/12/2019 : 105 books (123090 book-days)
31/3/2020 : 110 books (129788 book-days) (Change: 14 read, 19 added)
30/6/2020 : 94 books (102188 book-days) (Change: 54 read, 48 added)
30/9/2020 : 94 books (89465 book-days) (Change: 39 read, 39 added)
31/12/2020: 90 books (79128 book-days) (Change: 31 read, 27 added)
2/4/2021: 101 books (84124 book-days) (change: 19 read, 30 added)

The average days per book has gone down to 833 (1172 at the end of 2019; 879 at the end of 2021). But I didn't manage to read much from the older end of the pile in Q1, that fall in average age is mostly down to a big pile of books arriving near the end of Q1!


Those numbers are much more like what I'm used to than the mad book-a-day periods I had in 2020. Perhaps that means I'm getting my book/life balance sorted out a bit, or simply that I read more long books in Q1. Certainly, Vuile handen, The Manxman, Spur der Steine and The seven basic plots all kept me busy for quite a long time, and there were several others nearly as long.

Highlights of Q1:

The bridge on the Drina, obviously! I don't know why it took me so long to get to it
Spur der Steine and Weltzeituhr — two very different, but both very interesting DDR novels
The tower at the edge of the world — a lovely novel about childhood in the Faroes
The hitman's guide to housecleaning — the silliest Icelandic/Balkan crime novel I've read for ages
— the first four books of my Toni Morrison readthrough, especially Song of Solomon

Abr 2, 10:29am

Q1 ended with me in the middle of a big pile of German books, specifically with Kurt Tucholsky's famous holiday book, Schloß Gripsholm. I thought I might as well carry on with Tucholsky, in his day-job this time, with a book that arrived on my TBR a few weeks before the big pile of German stuff:

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles : ein Bilderbuch (1929) by Kurt Tucholsky (Germany, 1890-1935), photo-editing by John Heartfield (Germany, DDR, 1891-1968)


This 1929 collection creatively brings Tucholsky's essays, songs, monologues and one-liners together with pictures found or modified by the celebrated photomontage artist John Heartfield in a coordinated satirical attack on the values and institutions of the Weimar Republic. Their targets include things we might think of as universal social problems, like capitalism, nationalism, the growth of inequality in society and the inherent bias of the police and criminal justice system against the poor, as well as more specifically German problems (militarism, bureaucracy, exaggerated concern for order and authority, beer and bockwurst obsession, Bavarian contrariness, antisemitism, lack of aesthetic sense in public architecture).

It's all a bit scattershot, and at times it's hard to distinguish where Tucholsky sees really serious problems and where he just sees soft targets. And occasionally, as in the parody of a virulent nationalist reviewing Erich Maria Remarque's book, he's just a bit too much in love with his own cleverness. What he comes up with — the reviewer implausibly making Remarque out to be a Jew ("Erich Salomon Markus") who never saw active service — is far too near the unsubtle way actual Nazi propaganda worked to be funny...

However, what is clear, because he keeps coming back to it and because he devotes the only extended non-comic piece in the book to it, is that he sees the justice system as the core of the problem. The failure to purge the bench in 1918 and the way new judges are trained and appointed means that hard-core conservative, authoritarian attitudes, out of step with the rest of society, have carried over from before the war, and are only becoming more and more entrenched. Of course, even in the 21st century there are plenty of Tucholsky's successors around the world who have had their difficult moments with the law and will say similar things about judicial bias, but it is striking in a German context because of how closely it parallels what people were saying in the sixties and seventies about the failure to purge the bench in 1945...

What is also striking when you read the whole book is how Tucholsky, writing four years before Hitler came to power, is already convinced that Germany has missed its chance to sort itself out (in 1918), and is now well on its way down into the abyss. The only hindsight going on here is the reader's.

Clever, inventive, and often still very funny ninety years later. But sad, too, because, like most satire, it never reached enough of the people it was meant to convince.

Abr 2, 11:51am

Editado: Abr 2, 12:01pm

Tarnation, I've been scooped! My fault for dilly-dallying depressively in the doldrums... :)

I think the fever pitch of Tucholsky's satire, his pure rage, is earned a million times over, when you look at what he was seeing and hearing around himself day-in, day-out. Antisemitism was the air the Germans breathed. Tucholsky invented nothing, the myth of the "Dolchstoß", the Jews' betrayal in WWI, primed the rhetoric and the events long before the Nazis occupied the scene. Anyone the "patriots" didn't like was a Jew, this became the commonest of insults. As a pacifist criticising the war, Remarque WAS, to them, no different to the Jews--a traitor, un-German.

ETA: oops, I seem to have interrupted something. Should I move the post?

Abr 2, 12:05pm

>4 thorold: That looks fascinating thanks for the review. Happy New Thread.

Abr 2, 2:01pm

>6 LolaWalser: I’m pretty sure it was you who told me to read Tucholsky, that book in particular. And I’m grateful, of course!

Abr 2, 5:36pm

>8 thorold:

I was thinking, I'm reading so slowly you overtook me in mere... months! :) That's what comes out of reading a gajillion books at once...

I had to look up "Shantih"--obviously I don't have The Waste Land by heart.

Abr 3, 3:14am

>9 LolaWalser: I had to look up "Shantih"

Apparently you're not alone:

Abr 8, 5:39am

This next one has been on my TBR pile since May 2014. I brought it home from the charity shop because I'd enjoyed Walser's autobiographical novel Ein springender Brunnen, but since then I've read a couple of other books by him that I didn't like very much.

Since the title ("The defence of childhood") suggested that it ought to be relevant for the "childhood" theme read, I thought it was time to give it a try...

Die Verteidigung der Kindheit (1991) by Martin Walser (Germany, 1927- )


Alfred Dorn, the central figure of this book — obviously meant as Walser's big post-Wende novel of German history — is born in Dresden in 1929, grows up there, emigrates to West Berlin in 1953, and eventually becomes a civil servant in the Hessian culture ministry.

Whilst he goes through the motions of a respectable career, Alfred's whole life is in reality blighted by an obsessive need to recapture physical evidence and memories of the childhood he was cut off from by the bombing raid of 13 February 1945, which he and his parents survived by the merest accident. Alfred is stuck in a destructively close relationship with his mother (he's caring for her in his student room whilst trying to get through his final law exams), and he never comes to terms with key parts of adult life: he's repelled equally by manifestations of sexuality and by political or religious engagement. His low self-esteem also makes it difficult for him to trust other people and form proper friendships, and he spends most of his free time in correspondence with old ladies who might be able to remember some detail of life in Dresden before 1945.

Alfred's failure in life is also reflected in the way he is never allowed to deviate from a career path in law and public administration that he doesn't seem to have any real interest in or aptitude for, whilst his (presumed) talents as a musician and a caricaturist are constantly hinted at but never developed. At one point he does have a project for a historical novel (set, inevitably, in the 18th century Saxon court) under way, but this turns out to be a sterile exercise as well.

There's a lot of very interesting stuff in this book, close observation of how German society worked in the 50s and 60s and what mattered to people (the endless wars Alfred gets into with his Berlin landladies, for instance), as well as insights into the limitations of legal and civil-service ways of seeing the world. Alfred works for a while in an office processing compensation claims from victims of Nazi terror: there's plenty of irony in the way he has to keep requesting documentary evidence from people whose pasts have been erased even more thoroughly than his own. And it also gives a close view of the day to day realities of the way the German-German border messed up the lives of families separated by it, the bureaucratic nightmares of applying for travel permits or sending letters and parcels under constantly changing rules. Although I don't think Walser quite manages to convey the element of fear that went along with all that inconvenience.

This isn't the Tin Drum of the Berlin Wall. Awful though he is, Grass obviously likes Oskar Matzerath and finds him funny, and we can't help liking him too. But Walser clearly got exasperated by Alfred Dorn long before the end of the book, and he can't help making the reader feel the same way. Alfred is not funny, there's no way we can laugh at him except nastily. And 500 pages of someone like that is more than anyone can reasonably be expected to take...

Abr 8, 6:45am

...and another short one from the recent pile of German stuff that does fit in with the childhood theme rather better.

Austrian writer Brigitte Schwaiger was best known for her first novel, Wie kommt das Salz ins Meer?, which was a huge best-seller in the late seventies and is also sitting on my TBR shelf.

Mein spanisches Dorf (1978) by Brigitte Schwaiger (Austria, 1949-2010)


The short prose pieces, parodies, monologues (and a couple of poems) in this collection are all drawn from the author's childhood experiences as a doctor's daughter in the small community of Freistadt in Upper Austria, the "Spanish village" of the title. "It's a Spanish village to me" is a proverbial German expression for something puzzling and unintelligible, a variant of the more common "Bohemian village", which wouldn't fit very well here, Freistadt being on the Czech border. And it's also a personal joke, since Schwaiger lived in Spain for some years with her first husband before returning to Austria. However strange Spain may have been, when she looks back, the Austrian village where she grew up is stranger.

The book divides roughly into three equal parts: in the first part, the viewpoint is that of a naive young child, looking at the adult world with a critical and unprejudiced eye, and of course putting her finger on precisely the thing the adults don't want her to notice. She teases her parents for their snobbery and the nuns at school for their blinkered view of the world, conspires with domestic servants and causes trouble with the future bad-girl of the village. In the second part, the narrator is an adolescent confiding to her diary her secret (and sometimes embarrassingly-public) adoration for various boys who don't appear to be interested, whilst avoiding other boys who do. And in the third part the viewpoint switches around between all sorts of narrators: neighbours, dogs, members of the author's family, and occasionally the grown-up author herself, looking back. In one piece she even adopts the voice of her own ex-husband, answering criticism of her previous book.

There's a lot of fun with dialect and rustic comedy, but there's often a hard core of social criticism under the knockabout stuff: the legacies of the Nazi period and the war are still there in the village, of course, the place is full of men who haven't woken up to the sexual revolution, and there are new forms of hypocrisy and intolerance to deal with as well as the old ones. It's not exactly Elfriede Jelinek, but it's not without its bite, all the same.

Abr 8, 7:03am

Update on my slow progress towards cinematographic literacy: I'm still busy with the Agnès Varda box-set, which is clearly worth spending time on. I'll post about that when I'm a bit closer to having seen all her main films. I still don't know how I managed to miss most of them when they first came out, I had no idea how many there were...

Meanwhile, the lockdown-replacement streaming service took me on a little diversion into Věra Chytilová's 1966 surrealist classic Sedmikrásky (Daisies), a whole other world of cinema I knew nothing about. Complete with upside-down indoor barbecuing, much Freudian snipping of sausages, carrots, gherkins, etc., a galaxy of Prague toilet-attendants, and what must be one of the most memorable food-fights in cinema history...

Abr 8, 12:16pm

Věra Chytilová's 1966 surrealist classic Sedmikrásky (Daisies),

I loved this so much. :) Czechs and Slovaks had some of the most imaginative, colourful and playful cinema around.

Synchronicity on Varda--just last night I started watching Cléo de 5 à 7 (not for the first time) because they are about to take down the whole batch of her movies from this channel I sub to... but was too tired to watch to the end. I've seen already most of her "big" movies but the shorter documentaries, such as the one on the caryatids of Paris, were a revelation. ("Les dites Cariatides", 1984)

Editado: Abr 8, 2:57pm

>13 thorold: I love Varda's work, but only seen about 4 or 5 of them (I have the first box set but have not watched at least one of them). I found myself saying that i think Cleo de 5 a 7 may be my very favourite film, it seems to journey from the post-modern to the classical, and is just gorgeous not to mention Michel LeGrand's song. And I haven't really found a reason to disagree with myself yet, despite my usual dislike of top tens and favourites.

And Daisies is lovely too, I saw that in 2019. The Czech new wave is wonderful I've seen quite a few and also other eastern european films from 60s-80s I saw a few of in the last ten years. I am a bit fascinated how they had 60s fashion but somehow slightly different, given how grim we were told it all was, though I was a kid.

Abr 8, 4:47pm

>15 tonikat: >14 LolaWalser: Yes, Cléo is quite something. I’m leaning towards declaring Daguerréotypes my favourite of her films so far. Or maybe Sans toit ni loi. But how do you compare things in such different genres...?

I was fascinated to find among the bits-and-pieces that she’d made a 90-second commercial advertising Tupperware parties, of all unlikely things. It turns out to be in through-composed musical style, complete with singing garage mechanics and matelot. She comments that her husband couldn’t stop laughing when he saw it...

Abr 8, 4:59pm

>15 tonikat:, >16 thorold:

There is one Varda short film, the 16-minute long L'opéra-mouffe from 1958, that I would recommend above all else. It's everything that's best not just about her but maybe cinema in general. It's still up on Madelen (needs subscription) but unfortunately only clips on YouTube etc. But if you have sets, maybe it's included.

I discovered I have yet a few important big films to see: Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, Daguerréotypes, Une chante, l'autre pas... will be another long night.

Abr 8, 5:05pm

>17 LolaWalser: I saw L’une chante... the other night. You definitely need to watch that! Glaneurs still to come for me as well.

Abr 8, 5:31pm

... and I see what you mean about L’opéra-mouffe — that’s almost a mini-prospectus of what she was going to do for the next 50 years. Naked pregnant women, fruit and veg, faces of old people, mirrors, potatoes, long travelling shots, people eating weird stuff, shop-shutters: it’s all there!

Abr 8, 6:50pm

I have counted up five Varda films I have seen, including Les Glaneurs though which is lovely. So, I am not a good fan, but still devoted. My tv hasn't been working well for about 2 years now, only turns on once in a blue moon and hindered in being fixed by current circumstances, or i would have got through the rest of my box, but there is so much more.

I'm also a Rohmer fan. There is an early film of his in a bakery your talk of L'opera Mouffe has made me think of.

Abr 8, 8:29pm

>19 thorold:, >20 tonikat:

Maybe it's an experience that's highly individual... but I felt it was something extraordinarily radiating love, for people, things, fruit, the battered street, life... and oh my, those faces!

Abr 9, 4:05pm

>21 LolaWalser: I have had that impression of her early films that I have seen and also later films. I think she began as a photographer (hope I am right) which I always partly think when I notice such attention. Her last film is with a photographer.

Abr 9, 5:11pm

>21 LolaWalser: >22 tonikat: Yes, she did start as a photographer. Making us look at familiar things in a new way by putting them in an unexpected context is a what photographers do, I suppose, but I think Lola’s right, there’s always the sense when she shows us those faces that she really cares about the people behind them, and she wants us to stop and think about who they are and what lives they have led. Especially in Daguerréotypes, of course (and presumably Glaneurs as well), but it’s just as true for those faces passing in the street in Cléo.

Abr 9, 5:57pm

I agree. Her last film in this context has an interesting name - Faces, Places.

Editado: Abr 10, 7:03am

>24 tonikat: Yes, from the clips I've seen, that looks as though it's very much in the same line. I'll get to that one soon.

Incidentally, whatever else you can say about Varda, she does seem to have been unusually diligent about presenting her life-work to posterity (and making sure it continues to feed her grandchildren): two full-length autobiographical films, plus a TV series, to make sure we're aware of everything she did, supported by a carefully supervised digital restored edition of all her films (and her husband's). Obviously something we should be grateful for, but not many people go to such lengths in old age.

I want to get to Varda's films about her husband Jacques Demy next, so I watched Les demoiselles de Rochefort last night to put me in the mood. Fun, and nice to look at, but it seemed to be a classic case of someone spoiling a good idea by throwing too much money and too many big-name stars at it.


Back to books:

The Martin Walser book (>11 thorold:) wasn't a huge success with me, but it did have the positive effect of reminding me that there was someone else who came from Dresden and had a peculiarly close relationship with his mother:

The first of these is a re-read of an old favourite I probably haven't looked at since I was about 12; the second a recent anthology that was part of the German books avalanche that hit my TBR shelf last month:

Als ich ein kleiner Junge war (1957; When I was a little boy) by Erich Kästner (Germany, 1899-1974), illustrated by Horst Lemke
Kästner im Schnee : Geschichten, Gedichte, Briefe (2009) by Erich Kästner (Germany, 1899-1974), edited by Sylvia List


The shelves of the world's libraries are groaning with childhood memoirs of the great and the good, but Erich Kästner is unusual in that he chose to address his main autobiographical work, describing growing up in Dresden before 1914, specifically to young readers. "Dear children and non-children" is the formula he uses to open his Foreword, and it's obvious throughout that, whilst the presence of non-children is to be tolerated, it's not exactly encouraged, and they are admitted only as long as they keep quiet and don't interrupt. They would be wise not to provoke expulsion, because there is actually at least as much in this book that is interesting for adult readers as there is for children.

As always, Kästner treats his young readers as responsible, intelligent people, with a clear, sane gaze capable of puncturing the stupidities and hypocrisies of the adult world. He doesn't shelter them from "difficult" topics: we are told about how he had to help his mother through episodes of depression when she would go missing and he would find her standing on one of the bridges over the Elbe, looking longingly at the water; about how his fear of and disgust for a brutal teacher changed to compassion when he spent time with the man outside school and realised how trapped he was in a job he wasn't fitted for; and about his reaction to returning to the destroyed city after the 1945 bombing. And we learn a lot about how class-prejudice worked in Wilhelmite Germany, about poverty and child mortality, about militarism and pacifism, about what intellectual life looks like from the perspective of a working-class child, and much more.

It's a charming, funny, period piece, and the illustrations by Horst Lemke are a delight, of course, but it certainly isn't a trivial book. Still just as interesting as it was sixty years ago.

Kästner im Schnee is a mixed bag of Kästner's writings about snow and the strange German cult of winter-sports holidays, something that he was extremely fond of, although his heart problems meant that he was mostly restricted to sitting on sunny terraces watching the skiers exert themselves. We get the snowy bits of several of his full-length books for children or adults (Das fliegende Klassenzimmer, Drei Männer im Schnee, Der Zauberlehrling), plus a couple of short stories and newspaper articles, some lyrics, and a large selection of postcards and letters written to his mother from places like Garmisch, Oberstdorf, Kitzbühel and Davos. Most of the material is from the 1930s.

There's a lot of amused observation of the complex social world of the alpine Grand-Hotel, of the odd ways city-dwellers behave on holiday in the mountains, of the ingenious ways indigenous people find to make money out of them, and so on. He's amused by the way farm-boys turn into sex-gods when they declare themselves to be ski-instructors, by the interesting sexual ambiguity of ski costume, and by the strange rules of the fancy-dress ball (the unfortunate who turns up at an "Apache Ball" in Native American dress, unaware that to the fashionable mind, an Apache is a French gangster...). And, like every observer of the winter-sport theme before and since, he jokes about the prevalence of broken legs and bemoans the way mass tourism is ruining the mountains. Not that that stops him boasting (for the censor's benefit) about finding himself lunching at the next table to Reichsführer Rudolf Hess and friends. I imagine his mother would have been able to guess how he really felt about that.

This is a nicely-produced book, issued by Kästner's long-standing Swiss publishers and helpfully annotated by Sylvia List, but about half the book is taken up by the long extracts from the three full-length books, which most people likely to pick this up will have read already, and which are probably rather frustrating if you don't know the rest of the story. The other half is either unpublished material or less well-known pieces, and it's probably worth getting the book for those. I particularly enjoyed the short story "Zwei Schüler sind verschwunden," featuring Matz and Uli from Das fliegende Klassenzimmer, which I hadn't seen before.

Editado: Abr 10, 8:20am

> I wonder if the output for posterity is partly a consequence of people singing of her later in her life as she had been comparatively neglected I believe.
And do you mean demoiselles de Rochefort may have been spoiled by the Umbrellas of Cherbourg's success?
edit - oh and Faces, Places is lovely in many ways.

Abr 13, 9:38am

stepping in to wave hello, Mark. I just did a long catch up and found a lot of unknown-to-me German-language authors and books. Glad you enjoyed Tar Baby. Curious if you had any thoughts on the link with the character Tar Baby in Sula, or how the end of the book kind of exposes or re-examines the servant structure a bit. No need to respond, but just some things i continue to chew on as the book fades from memory. Glad Morrison is on your Q1 good list and that Song of Solomon stood out. I think it's my personal favorite, and maybe due for a re-read. Anyway, fun stuff here.

Abr 14, 3:49am

>27 dchaikin: Thanks, Dan! — I'll have to think about that as I go on with Morrison, I'm already starting to forget Sula...! The role of black people —women, in particular — as domestic servants is obviously a key theme in her books, my first thought about Tar baby is that there are thousands of other upstairs/downstairs novels about very rich people and their servants; Morrison has much more interesting and specific things to say about the employer/servant relationship when she's talking about women who work for fairly ordinary middle-class white people in forties and fifties Ohio. Really there's nothing much about the black, American couple in Tar baby to distinguish them from the working-class white domestic servants in a novel by Henry Green or somebody.

>26 tonikat: Yes, Demy and Legrand obviously had a clever idea when they thought of doing a spoof version of an American musical, shot entirely on location in a French military town, but the international success of Umbrellas meant that their backers thought it worth investing enough to make the new film a Hollywood-style success, so they had to find space for more stars than they knew what to do with and had all the complications of making English and French versions in parallel. It ends up as lots of very high-quality bits that don't quite add up.

I saw Visages, villages last night, and enjoyed it very much.

Editado: Abr 14, 5:25am

Another classic Eng Lit textbook that's been on the TBR for a while. It was Bas who reminded me that it existed, a few months ago...

The rise of the novel : studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957) by Ian P. Watt (UK, 1917-1999)


This book sets out Watt's arguments in support of his belief that a new literary form, "the novel," different from any earlier kind of European prose fiction, was developed in early 18th-century England by Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Obviously, you can always twist the definition of "the novel" far enough to make this kind of statement true for whatever time, place and group of writers you choose, but Watt makes a good case for the uniqueness of the circumstances in which his three pioneers were writing, both in view of the development of philosophical and religious ideas that informed their ways of looking at characters and society and in view of the economic and social conditions that created a demand for the sort of books they were writing. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter to most of us that he thinks earlier works such as Don Quixote, Pilgrim’s Progress or Simplicissimus should not formally count as "novels"; what's interesting is why Watt considers Defoe, Richardson and Fielding are special, and that is something he develops in considerable and rewarding detail.

Watt is an obvious product of F R Leavis's Cambridge, and this book was published in the late fifties when Leavis was still very influential. You can see his footprints all over the place, notably in Watt's emphasis on the moral obligations of the novelist and his reluctance to enjoy Fielding's comedy, but Watt's insistence on tying literature to social and economic history seems to be an assertion of independence. Leavis, of course, didn't really approve of prose fiction before Jane Austen anyway, so he must have been horrified at the whole idea of this book.

Defoe and Richardson clearly appeal to Watt because they are pragmatic businessmen, happy to ignore the literary formulas dictated by high culture in creating the sort of entertaining books their audiences actually want to read, and he's a little dismissive of Fielding's attempts to make his comic prose fiction look as though it belongs within the tradition of the classical epic. He sees Defoe as a pioneer of the (capitalist) model of the novel as a description of the individual's struggle for fortune and security against the world, whilst Richardson counts as the pioneer of detailed psychological analysis of personality and relationships, and Fielding is more focussed on the mechanism of society as a whole. All three essential elements in the future development of the form.

It's interesting that, whilst Watt argues for a clear primacy for English writers in the period from about 1700-1740, after that the he sees the initiative moving across the Channel, with an apotheosis in the work of Stendhal and Balzac and a late flourish in Joyce's Ulysses. The only writers from England he really pays attention to after 1740 are Sterne, Jane Austen, and George Eliot.

Abr 14, 5:41am


...there seems to be a stripy-hair theme going on in my recent threads!

Editado: Abr 14, 5:54am

<30 As a stripy-haired person myself (of the Susan Sontag type), I approve! So, who's next? Indira Gandhi? ;-)

Abr 14, 11:12am

... >31 Dilara86: I'm probably just jealous of all these people who have appreciable amounts of hair...

A recent first novel that popped up in my Scribd recommendations on audio. Since it ticks both the LGBT and DDR boxes, I let myself be tempted into trying it...

The recent east (2021) by Thomas Grattan (USA, - ) audiobook read by Angela Dawe


(Author photo from publisher site)

The premise of this novel sounded intriguing: Beate's family escaped from the DDR in the sixties, when she was a small girl. After the Wende, she decides to move back from America to her parents' old house on the Baltic coast, taking her two teenage children with her. The son is gay, the daughter gets involved with trying to protect a group of refugees who are being intimidated by Neo-nazis, and Beate has to find a way to make a living in a community that is crumbling away into emigration and unemployment.

And of course that is interesting, for the length of a chapter or two. Unfortunately, once he's set up that situation, Grattan doesn't seem to have any very clear ideas how to fill up the gaps he's left himself between 1966 and 1990 in one direction, and between 1990 and 2016 in the other. He simply lets his characters behave in the sort of random, purposeless and inconsistent ways that would be perfectly normal for real people, but isn't what we look for when we're paying someone to make up an interesting story about them. There are no resolutions, no lessons to be learnt, no development of characters, no unusual insights into the larger problems of the world around them, it's just one damn thing after another (except during the flashback chapters, when of course it's one damn thing before another).

It's a shame that Grattan is such a competent and reasonably lively writer, because you are left feeling how much better a book this could have been. When he's not trying too hard, he has no trouble keeping you interested in the detail of what he's telling you about. He does clearly feel a sense of obligation to be literary occasionally, with unfortunate and rather distracting results ("Beate's daughter was like a Russian novel: admirable, but difficult to hold."). The German setting of most of the book and the convention that much of the time characters are speaking German where we read English also get him into trouble: people say things that just don't back-translate into German in any obvious way (people in the DDR addressing each other as "Citizen" as though they were in 1790s France); there are incongruously American things like buckets of ice and garden swimming pools, or someone "runs a stop sign". And then there's that mid-sixties German hospital with rooms full of beeping machines, which allows patients to phone home in the middle of the night...

On the whole, I wouldn't recommend this, but Grattan looks like someone to watch. The problems of this novel are mostly technical, and he's clearly got things to say: I'm sure his next book will be better.

Abr 14, 12:06pm

>28 thorold: my understanding, and this might be a spoiler for anyone reading, is that at the end of TB the servants were exposed to be, or to have become, the controlling force. But it’s been a while. I should revisit (although I don’t have a copy. It used a library audiobook).

Abr 14, 12:27pm

>33 dchaikin: Yes, that's right. But that happens in a lot of stories about servants.

Abr 14, 12:34pm

>29 thorold: I really enjoyed this review.

Abr 14, 12:35pm

>34 thorold: actually I didn’t know that. (I didn’t realize it was a trope. )

Abr 16, 12:33pm

>32 thorold: I think those make for the most frustrating type of reads, i.e. the ones where there are inklings that the author could be really, really good but sadly repeatedly misses the mark.

Abr 16, 4:00pm

>29 thorold: I read The Rise of the novel last year and found it well worth reading. He is particularly strong on Defoe and Robinson Crusoe. He has almost persuaded me to read Richardson.

Editado: Abr 27, 5:55am

Sorry, I seem to have fallen into another extended gap in posts without noticing it — the cumulative effect of various unimportant distractions and a lengthy book that took a while to grab my attention properly. Anyway, time for another review:

Pause für Wanzka : oder, Die Reise nach Descansar : Roman (1968) by Alfred Wellm (DDR, 1927-2001)


(Wellm is second from left in the photo)

This, Wellm's first novel for adults, became the classic DDR novel about teachers and the school system. Wellm's central character, Gustav Wanzka, is a man who went into teaching full of the reformist ideas of the 1920s, was excluded from the profession by the Nazis, and returned to become an education official under the DDR. After a long period as District Education Director, he has asked to be transferred back to classroom teaching for his last few years before retirement, and is assigned to a primary school in a small town in Mecklenburg.

Back in Weimar times, Wanzka identified one of the working-class children he was teaching as a prodigious mathematical talent and tried to put him into a position to do something with his gifts. Largely due to his own conflict with the Nazi authorities, he failed in his attempts to help the boy, who didn't get to study, was drafted into the ranks and wastefully killed in the war. Now he seems to have spotted another talented boy, Norbert, and his focus on this one student brings him into conflict with his fellow-teachers in the school.

At one level you can read this as simply a satire of small-town clubbiness, the mediocrity and laziness of teachers and all the rest of it. There's a timid headmaster, a scheming and politically astute deputy head, a discipline-obsessed sports teacher, an idealistic young woman, an infuriatingly well-travelled English-teacher, a biologist who yawns all the time and has exclusive rights to the comfy chair, a woolly middle-aged matron who is always going on about her brother-in-law in the West and his Mercedes, and the entire staff-room is obsessed with angling and the annual staff picnic on the lake. Like Wellm, Wanzka comes from a family of professional fishermen and has nothing but contempt for recreational anglers. Wanzka's only real friend on the staff is Pikors, the resourceful caretaker.

But it's also a more serious challenge to received ideas about what education is for: should schools be focussed on the needs of society as a whole — efficient, smooth-running skill-factories for producing good citizens — or should they be more child-centred, as Wanzka would like, places where learning can be fun and children can develop their own gifts and interests in an atmosphere free from the tyranny of tests and schedules? Clearly that's not a question confined to the DDR, or indeed a question that can ever have a clear answer one way or the other. Wellm seems to be mostly on Wanzka's side, but he makes it clear that things aren't quite straightforward. We're never quite sure (except in the "happy-ending" bolted on to the story out of political expediency) that Wanzka's conviction of the importance of Norbert's talents isn't based on self-deception, and we do see quite clearly that his extra work with Norbert leads to neglect of other responsibilities and problems for Wanzka's colleagues.

We might add, from our 21st century perspective, that both Wanzka and Wellm seem to suffer from an inability to notice the female half of the student body: almost all the named children in the book are boys. There's a Sieglinde who is asked to write on the blackboard, but we don't learn any more about her than that, and another younger girl whom Wanzka calls "the dancer".

Wellm started writing this book in the relatively open political climate of the early sixties, but by the time it was submitted for publication in 1967, things had changed, and there was a long and bitter struggle before it could be published. Typically for the DDR, the question went right up to the top, and it was Walter Ulbricht himself who gave the go-ahead — allegedly to spite education minister Margot Honecker, who was vehemently opposed to the book coming out. There was a lot of controversy about the book when it appeared in 1968: teachers' organisations resented the negative portrayal of their profession, ideologists felt that its message was too individualistic for a socialist society, and so on. Various plans for a film version got nowhere: one was eventually made only in 1990. But the book soon established itself as a classic of DDR literature, with over a quarter of a million copies sold (to a population of around 15 million!).

Abr 27, 7:16am

The story around the Wanzka book is quite fascinating.

Abr 27, 12:40pm

Well! Don't think I'll be looking for it but that's very informative.

Maio 6, 5:33am

Another lengthy gap (by my standards), a re-read that shouldn't have taken very long, but the combination of emotionally-demanding subject-matter with continuing unimportant distractions made me spin it out a bit longer. On the positive side I also finished two very thin books from that big pile of random German fiction:

First, the next instalment in my Morrisonade:

Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison (USA, 1931-2019)


With Beloved, Morrison continues the tightening of the focus in time and space that she was experimenting with in Tar Baby — we're down to a time-span of a single generation, straddling the American Civil War, whilst the migration from South to North is condensed to crossing the Ohio River, between slavery on Sweet Home farm in Kentucky and freedom in Cincinnati. With a plot that draws loosely on the Medea story, she creates a level of emotional intensity that feels almost like the unity of time and space of Greek tragedy.

As ever, the theme is the enduring damage done by slavery and racism, but here we are focussing on the people who were its direct victims, rather than on their descendants two or three generations down. And Morrison keeps a step ahead of potential critics by making Sweet Home a model farm, run by people who consider themselves liberal and enlightened. Mr Garfield claims that his slaves are the only black "men" in Kentucky (all others are "boys", of course); he teaches them to shoot and allows them to learn to read and write if they wish, and even allows Halle to hire himself out in his spare time to earn his mother's freedom. But of course it is neither "Sweet" nor "Home", and Garfield's social experiments do nothing to cancel out the horrible, dehumanising effect of the condition of slavery itself, least of all when he dies and leaves the slaves at the mercy of a less enlightened successor. Once she has got herself and her children away across the river at huge risk, Sethe will go to any lengths to prevent the children being taken back to Sweet Home.

This is a tougher book than Morrison's earlier novels, strong, tight, taking absolutely no prisoners, and giving us less chance to relax over social comedy and the eccentricities of the communities it is set in, but it must surely count as her best up to that point.

Maio 6, 6:05am

And two miniatures:

Der Fürst spricht (1996) by Jan Peter Bremer (Germany, 1965- )


(Author photo by Don Manfredo via Wikipedia)

A superficially very simple story about a ruling prince, his steward and his new administrator, set in a world of almost fairy-tale abstraction, turns into a dark and very moving analysis of loneliness. The prince clumsily reaches out to the two other characters and to a stray dog to try to establish some sort of emotional bond, but each time he ends up doing more harm than good. All the while, just offstage, a pretty girl flirts effortlessly with the prince's coachman.

Written in the pared down, simplified tradition of Kafka (and with more than a hint of Robert Walser), this condenses a whole novel into under eighty pages. It would clearly make a great stage-play too.

Wie kommt das Salz ins Meer (1977; Why is there salt in the sea?) by Brigitte Schwaiger (Austria, 1949-2010)


A big bestseller in the seventies, this short novel takes apart (Austrian- ) bourgeois marriage from the sardonic, self-mocking point of view of a young woman who has allowed herself to be steered into the path of least resistance by parents and friends, and suddenly finds herself with a passport that has a new name in it and "housewife" as profession, but still living in the same small town, still under the constant supervision of friends and relatives who know what goes along with gutbürgerlich behaviour. Even when she tries her hand at adultery she finds herself following the predetermined lines of middle-class cliché, arranging secret meetings with a man who might be more interesting than her husband in bed, but in all other respects is interchangeable with him.

Very much of its time, when feminist ideas were only just beginning to penetrate into provincial life, but still funny, sad, and deadly accurate in its observation.

Maio 6, 8:51am

>42 thorold: “ tightening of the focus in time and space”

I hadn’t considered that. Enjoyed your comments here on these other two curious (to me) German books.

Maio 6, 12:49pm

>42 thorold: I loved Beloved - it blew me away when I read it.

Editado: Maio 10, 6:45am

Back to my stash of Seven Seas Books. Regulars here will recall that these were English-language paperbacks, mostly by left-wing writers, (re-)published in East Berlin in the fifties and sixties: I accidentally came across a small collection of them about this time last year when I was searching the secondhand market for work by apartheid-era South African writers. Most of the books I acquired, including this one, came from the library of the late Professor Hanna Behrend.

I read another of Alvah Bessie's books, his crime novel Bread and a stone, from the same pile a few months ago.

Inquisition in Eden (1965) by Alvah Bessie (USA, 1904-1985)


In October 1947, Alvah Bessie and nine other Hollywood screenwriters refused to answer questions from the House Un-American Activities Committee which they considered to be outside the scope of the committee's constitutional authority. For this largely symbolic act of moral courage, they were prosecuted for contempt of Congress, and most received a prison sentence of twelve months (a couple who were old and unwell "only" got six months). With a delicious irony that Bessie restrains himself from making too much of, their main tormentor, J Parnell Thomas, the then chairman of the HUAC, had been convicted on corruption charges in the meantime, and actually got to prison before them. Of course, as tends to happen to corrupt politicians, Thomas received a presidential pardon and only served nine months; the Hollywood Ten were ineligible for parole (because they didn't accept the justice of their conviction and show remorse) and had to serve their full sentences.

Bessie's memoir, written some fifteen years after the event, is — with deliberate irony, knowing that such a film could never be made — written in the form of a film treatment, alternating between scenes of Bessie in federal prison in Texarkana and the story of his life as journalist and screenwriter between his return from service in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and his arrest.

The prison part of the book is similar to many other prison-memoirs by intellectuals, dividing its attention between the author's own confrontation with the oddities and indignities of institutional life and a growing interest in and sympathy for the much worse plight of the "normal" prisoners around him. It was already clear to him in 1950 that there was something very seriously wrong with the American penal system and its crazy urge to lock up as many poor people as possible, and equally clear that no-one was ever going to lift a finger to fix it.

In the Hollywood part of the narrative, he's mocking the idiocy of the HUAC-bigots' notion that the film industry had been infiltrated and subverted by communists. "I've tried it and it can't be done," is his essential, slightly tongue-in-cheek, message.

Anyone who works in the film business, Bessie shows us, soon learns that the raison d'être of Hollywood is not artistic integrity, it's making high-quality entertainment that earns large amounts of money for investors. Those investors — big financial institutions — always have the ultimate say over what the studios can and can't do, and the content of Hollywood films is therefore driven firstly by the prejudices and self-interest of the investors, and secondly by their (not always accurate) perception of what the public will pay to see. Hollywood doesn't drive public opinion, it does its best to follow fashion. Subverting Hollywood is about as realistic a notion as subverting Wall Street.

Directors and screenwriters in the forties might have been as red as a tomato in their personal convictions, but they still wouldn't have been able to make a film that was sympathetic to trade-unions or to Our Russian Allies in the World War (or for that matter one that represented Jews, black people or women fairly...). The "men in New York" would have used their veto.

Bessie describes how, every time someone came to him with a good idea (about Spain, Russia, or the labour movement, for instance) and he wrote it up the way he thought it should be treated, it was either abandoned or re-written by someone else and produced in unrecognisable form. And he also describes how the studio bosses (and even the newspapers) initially showed their support for the persecuted screenwriters and publicly rejected any notion of a blacklist, only to backtrack rapidly after being summoned to a meeting by their financial backers.

A personal and obviously not at all impartial account of an old conflict, but fun to read and also a reminder of how easy it is to get ourselves into a situation where "people in general" start to believe that there is an emergency giving us good reasons to suspend basic human rights and constitutional principles, when with hindsight it's clear that there was no threat at all. Whether that's relevant to our own times we'll only be able to say for sure a few decades further on...

Maio 10, 8:57am

>46 thorold: fascinating. Have you seen the film of recent years, Trumbo with Bryan Cranston? I liked it. This would be a way to get a broader view. I also love the depiction of the writers in Hail, Caesar. I wonder what the balance is these days with investors, also how what he wrote of changed with the New Hollywood of the 70s or so.

Maio 10, 9:01am

>46 thorold: this is the first of these pack of books that I feel a strong desire to read. I’m fascinated by this era and event and surprise by how little I understand or know about it.

Maio 10, 11:59am

>47 tonikat: No, didn’t know about the film: I’ll look for it. Thanks!

There was a surprising amount of what he said about the studios and the way they employed writers without giving them any work that could have come out of P.G. Wodehouse or Eisenstein in Hollywood, a decade earlier. I expect it was all quite different by the seventies, but presumably no less capitalist.

Maio 10, 2:13pm

>49 thorold: you're welcome.

I think the 70s saw the rivalry of television - directors were given more lee way I think in order to respond/survive and those were interesting cultural times, but I don't know what that meant in terms of relationship with the finance, nor presumably how that worked as times changed again later and the freedom was put back into the bottle a bit.

Maio 11, 11:08pm

My intro to this topic was a book of Joseph Losey's interviews (Conversations with Losey) and I have a big academic tome somewhere (that reaches wider than just Hollywood)... Very vicious time, thousands of people suffered serious consequences. I'm not sure Europeans (and I'll include myself) quite understand just how deep and scarring was the manipulation of the Red Scare in the US.

Editado: Maio 12, 5:24am

I watched the film Trumbo last night — it was fun, a loving recreation of the inane atmosphere of a forties Hollywood biopic, with fabulous props and costumes and some impressively hammy performances (Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger in particular, but Cranston and Helen Mirren were splendidly over the top too). It was a pleasant, comic story of how a clever, determined man beat the blacklist, with no attempt to examine any political issues.

To a millennial watching this film, communism would presumably come over as something like being black or gay or Jewish, another one of those irrelevant labels dim-witted people of an earlier generation had an absurd and irrational prejudice against, but "now we know better". Which is scarcely fair either to those people who made a serious, rational commitment to the workers' struggle or to those others who saw Soviet communism as a real threat to the free world.

(Typical was the way the film condensed Trumbo's HUAC evidence — in the transcript as quoted by Bessie, the questions are all about Trumbo's membership of the Screenwriters' Guild, and in his responses he defends the right of Americans to belong to trade unions without interference from government or from their employers: that's all cut, and it is reduced to "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" — apparently unions are still a taboo subject in the movies...)

I was amused, having read the Bessie book, that the film had a character carefully made up to look very like the photographs of Bessie I've seen, but they only used him in the background of two or three group scenes, he didn't get any lines.


I found I had another memoir by an old-school American communist in the same pile that overlapped with the Bessie book. Joe North employed Bessie as theatre critic on New Masses, and he describes meeting him in Spain:
A dark figure came out of the shadows and asked sepulchrally whether it was true that that bastard Joe North was here. I turned to look into the unshaven face of a haggard man of thirty, blue eyes bloodshot in a bald head, his high forehead furrowed in wrinkles. "I'm Alvah Bessie," he said, "remember?" I remembered. {...} "Well, I'm just the same cranky old bastard," he said.

No men are strangers (1958; Seven Seas 1976) by Joseph North (USA, 1904-1976)


This is a difficult book to place, it seems to oscillate between being an autobiography and a collection of loosely linked essays. North starts conventionally enough, with his semi-literate Ukrainian immigrant parents and his childhood in Chester, Pa., memories of shipyards, school, his mother rescuing their black neighbour from a Ku Klux Klan raid, him winning a scholarship examination and then being told that the sponsors, the local Rotarians, had decided after the event that they didn't want the scholarship grant to go to a Jewish child. But then we turn a page and go without any explanation from the young Joe, apparently condemned to a life hammering rivets in the shipyards, to the only slightly older Joe graduating from the University of Pennsylvania.

And that's how it goes on: there's a lot of very interesting reminiscence about his early training as a journalist on a local paper, his conversion to socialism and his move to New York to join the staff of the Daily Worker and become the editor of the relaunched weekly New Masses, about his work there, the writers and cartoonists he worked with, assignments to cover strikes, racist abuses in the South, and so on, but there are all kinds of continuity breaks and odd omissions. There's not a single mention of his brother, the well-known film composer Alex North, for instance, and even his wife, fellow-communist Helen Oken, is only mentioned briefly in passing once (when he's describing his return from Spain she is travelling back with him, but he hasn't previously bothered to mention that she came to Spain). Perhaps this lack of personal detail is understandable given the political climate of the fifties when he was writing, but it gives the book a strangely disconnected feel.

The most obviously interesting parts of the book should probably be the chapters on Spain and Cuba and the final section about Europe immediately after the German capitulation, including a visit to Dachau, but actually most of what he says there is exactly what you would expect a committed communist to say. It's almost painful to read his wriggling justification of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, for instance, or his parroting of the revealed truth that the defeat of the Spanish Republic was entirely the fault of the Trotskyists and Anarchists.

What struck me much more in the book were the chapters about the South, in particular his account of going to Georgia in the early thirties to report on the Angelo Herndon case, and his wartime trip to meet black workers in Alabama, where it's made clear to us that we are every bit as far behind enemy lines as we would be in occupied Europe. North tries hard to be optimistic that the workers' movement and the experience of working in a common cause for the war effort will overcome barriers of race in American society, but keeps running up against realities that make him doubt it.


I quite like those bold Rastafarian primary colours on the cover, but I don't think there's any excuse for all that negative kerning that turns the word "Strangers" into a black blob. Or for the unintended Star Wars perspective effect!

Maio 12, 9:29am

Definitely a dated cover style. Again, enjoying the insights into this part of the US.

Maio 12, 11:11am

>52 thorold: "To a millennial watching this film, communism would presumably come over as something like being black or gay or Jewish, another one of those irrelevant labels dim-witted people of an earlier generation had an absurd and irrational prejudice against, but "now we know better". Which is scarcely fair either to those people who made a serious, rational commitment to the workers' struggle or to those others who saw Soviet communism as a real threat to the free world."

This is extremely well said.

" . . . a serious, rational commitment to the workers' struggle." "Rational" is the key word for me, here. After so many years of pro-capitalist, anti-communist rhetoric in the U.S., the realities of that movement would be hard to envision, I think, to folks who didn't at least grow up with parents who remember the early 20th century and passed on such knowledge. For example, my wife's mother grew up on a socialist collective farm in upstate New York.

In terms of the McCarthyist witch hunt, I've always thought it was particularly instructive to know that the American's who went to Spain to fight against Franco were hounded in the 50s and labeled "premature anti-fascists" because they took a stand against fascism before the U.S. government did.

Maio 12, 2:40pm

those others who saw Soviet communism as a real threat to the free world.

"Free world" is a laughable phrase coming from imperialists who thought nothing of sowing war all over the globe. How many 20th century wars did the USSR start, and how many the US?

I don't know what "being fair" to that mentality means. I suppose we can accept some people sincerely believed they were dropping tonnes of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese, maiming the health of millions of people forever (that's the survivors), for such a great cause that it excused everything. But that can be said about everybody--including the Soviets.

>54 rocketjk:

"premature anti-fascists"

Lol! One couldn't invent that crap...!

Oh, and as for the "free world" as exemplified by the US, where everyone but everyone is free to die in the street like a dog while St. Bezos is rewarded by another super-turbo-ultra-mad yacht befitting a trillionaire, in September 1992 the question was still asked of those landing in the US if they were or ever were member of a Communist party. Interestingly, there was no question about being a bloody Nazi! So you can imagine where I think the phrase "free world" and "leader of the free world" only fit to print.

Maio 12, 3:41pm

>55 LolaWalser: I’m starting to wish I’d gone with my initial idea of putting “free world” in scare-quotes... :-)

I’ve seen that phrase “premature anti-fascists” somewhere else recently, I’m trying to work out where. I think it was in relation to Germany, not Spain...

Maio 12, 4:14pm

>56 thorold:

Oh, I wasn't thinking it was your notion--I took it as a paraphrase of those people's outlook.

Maio 12, 4:48pm

>56 thorold: >55 LolaWalser: "Premature anti-fascists" is a term that has been around for a long time, but seems to cycle up and down in its frequency of use. I first heard it in university, used in relation to the volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, and that still seems to be its major usage, but it makes sense in a German context too.

Just found this article after reading your posts:

Maio 12, 5:17pm

>58 SassyLassy: Nice! Knox obviously considered the term as specifically an American coining, and he was probably in the best possible position to know that...

Maio 13, 9:22am

>55 LolaWalser: in September 1992 the question was still asked of those landing in the US if they were or ever were member of a Communist party

Pity they didn't take the same approach as suited to viruses . . . and they could.

>52 thorold: not sure if I am seeming millenial, but it wasn't a bad movie, grossly simplified as it was. This was why Bessie interested me. But I've read plenty about those times home and abroad for my degree and how the west has acted. Currently it seems with one of our own parties trying to treat their own country as a colony.

Editado: Maio 13, 10:34am

Never mimd the "premature anti-fascists" which was a new term/label for me, my favourite part of Mark's excellent review >46 thorold: was "red as a tomato" I had also not heard that before either.

Maio 15, 4:58am

>61 baswood: Can't be original, surely? I probably had the logo of the (Dutch) Socialistische Partij in the back of my mind.


Something completely different: I remember thinking last year that the pandemic would surely unleash a slew of books from busy people who had finally got the opportunity to sit down and write up that project they'd been planning all these years. I haven't seen many of those yet: this is the first to come my way where the author explicitly says he would never have finished it without all that enforced extra free time. Unusually for me, it's a new publication bought on the strength of press reviews:

The Life of Music : new adventures in the western classical tradition (2021) by Nicholas Kenyon (UK, 1951- )


Having run the Proms, BBC Radio 3, and the Barbican Centre, as well as being on the board of just about every important music organisation in the UK, Sir Nicholas Kenyon has had more opportunities than most people to influence what we perceive as the "canon" or "standard repertoire" of western classical music. He's also held those positions during a period in which the elitist basis and (perceived) limited popular appeal of classical music were coming under increasing attack, when the whole notion of a standard repertoire based on "great composers" was being challenged, and when boundaries were being stretched by the reintegration of the former specialist category of "early music" into the mainstream and by the rediscovery of composers from under-represented groups. All of which left people like Kenyon in a position where every decision they take is going to be attacked by one side or another, especially over absurdities like the patriotic singing-spree of the last night of the Proms...

So Kenyon is in a good position to write a book like this, which brings together the history of music in western civilisation from Aristotle to Thomas Adès with a history of how the history of that music has been perceived, how different periods, regions, genres and composers have come and gone in the classroom and in the concert hall, through the influence of performers, later composers, or the accidents of fashion. It's a lively, very rapid but often surprisingly detailed account, focussing on what you need to know as a listener to orientate yourself in a concert programme or a Spotify playlist (needless to say, the book comes with its own playlist, a hundred carefully selected performances of milestone works).

Kenyon shares his personal opinions, of course, but he's rarely entirely negative about anyone. Maybe he is a bit too much focussed on large-scale orchestral work and opera, so that he overlooks some composers appreciated more for their chamber music, but really there isn't very much I would have expected to see that is missing. Samuel Coleridge Taylor is one odd omission: given the general British bias of the book and the efforts Kenyon makes elsewhere to include black and female composers, it's surprising not to find at least a discussion of why Hiawatha's wedding feast was so popular in the 19th century and then sank almost without trace.

I enjoyed this book, but, as a regular concert-goer and someone who's been listening to classical music — and reading about it — for a long time, I didn't learn very much from it that was really new to me. I think I would have appreciated it a lot more if I'd got my hands on a book like this when I was forty years younger and still trying to find my way around the repertoire: it would be a great present for a keen listener who has only recently been bitten by the classical music bug and wants to expand their horizons. Kenyon is careful to keep his writing accessible and uses only the necessary minimum of technical language.

Maio 15, 4:42pm

>62 thorold: Sounds interesting.

Editado: Maio 16, 4:35am

Back to the random German pile. Genazino was a journalist and novelist based in the Frankfurt area. He won the prestigious Georg-Büchner prize in 2004, but I hadn't read any of his work before. This is the book that marked his (rather belated) breakthrough to bestseller status. There's an English translation by Philip Boehm, published in 2006:

Ein Regenschirm für diesen Tag (2001; The shoe-tester of Frankfurt) by Wilhelm Genazino (Germany, 1943-2018)


The opening of this book wasn't encouraging: an unnamed first-person narrator wanders through the streets of an unnamed city (Frankfurt), bumping into various women he's known in the past. We learn that he's heading into middle-age, has recently been left by his long-term girlfriend, and has no employment except a precarious and poorly-paid job test-walking prototypes of luxury shoes for a local manufacturer. Clearly the starting-point for yet another of those white-heterosexual-male self-pity books...

But that's not quite what we get. There's no solipsism and self-pity here, the narrator remains aware of the needs and emotions of his (women-) friends and is able to look at his own plight and the human condition (the long rainy day against which our bodies form the umbrellas) with detachment and a sense of irony, and the author connives to allow the slightly absurd depression-management strategies the narrator jokily proposes to himself actually to produce results: focussing on the sound of autumn leaves underfoot (he fills a spare room with them), visualising throwing his jacket away into the bushes, giving his depression a name (Gertrud) and wrestling with her, and so on.

So, an oddly upbeat, encouraging little book, and it's also full of lovely, unexpected little bits of wittily-detailed observation of the urban scene: people acting oddly in the street or in restaurants, or as seen from the windows of the narrator's apartment; the sales manager of the shoe company, who insists on trapping the narrator in long discussions about 1970s model railway equipment when he delivers his shoe-reports; Frau Balkhausen, who tells a local TV reporter that she likes looking at floodwater because it feels good to imagine that you're watching the end of the world. And much more. Clearly, the world is a much odder place for Genazino than most of us give it credit for.


I like the witty cover photo (credited to Robert Doisneau/Rapho), which fits the atmosphere of the story nicely, but doesn't have anything to do with the literal subject-matter: the umbrella of the German title is a purely metaphorical one.

Maio 20, 9:19am

And the next in a French crime series I've been following sporadically for some time. This one's the fourth in the series, and it's been on my TBR since summer 2017:

Monsieur Malaussène (1995) by Daniel Pennac‬ (France, 1944- )


Benjamin and Julie are expecting a baby, Julie inherits a film-library from her godfather, Belleville's last cinema, the Zebra, is under threat, the younger members of the Malaussène family are causing trouble as usual, and Divisional Commissaire Coudrier is on the point of retirement. But of course there's also a bizarre serial-killer on the loose, being pursued by police officer/nun Sister Gervaise, and Benjamin has either gone on an uncharacteristic killing-spree himself or become the victim of an implausibly-complex plot to frame him...

Like the previous book, this is just a touch too long and too complicated. Not only does Benjamin spend far too much time apostrophising his unborn child, but there's even a point where Pennac paints himself into a corner and has to wind the story back seven chapters and start again from there, with a flimsy excuse. Not something you can get away with unless your readers and publishers already have a lot of confidence in you as a storyteller. It is still all very entertaining, and there are some great characters and some very silly bits of invention, but you can't help feeling that the series has lost a lot of its momentum by this point. Worryingly, there are still three more books to come...

Maio 20, 3:50pm

>64 thorold:

Coool, I have this, got it for the cover...

>65 thorold:

I liked the series and recommended it many times but I realise I remember very little (to be fair, it has been a quarter of a century). I liked the grotesque aspects the best. A lot of his characterisation strikes me as so saccharine and iffy (I really dislike the Earth Goddess mother dropping off her litter to the son), but then bam! the plot does something electrifyingly awful.

Yeah, I thought it went downhill from the fourth book. I think the real life awfulness caught up with the fairy tale of a multiculutural working class paradise, with all the antisemitic incidents and murders in Belleville.

Maio 29, 4:58am

>66 LolaWalser: Yes, sometimes you feel the covers are the best bits, but then he goes and does something totally outrageous with the plot and you decide to give him a bit more rope...

Back to the DDR, and another book that spiphany drew my attention to (thanks, again!). Erich Loest was a Leipzig writer who became a consistent critic of the East German state after 1953, eventually spending seven years as a political prisoner in Bautzen. After his release he earned his living writing (pseudonymous) crime novels and a popular historical novel about his fellow-Saxon Karl May; he moved to exile in the West in 1981.

Völkerschlachtdenkmal (1984) by Erich Loest (DDR, Germany, 1926-2013)


The "Battle of the Nations" outside Leipzig in October 1813 counts as one of the biggest and bloodiest battles on European soil before the First World War, and as a defining moment in European history: Napoleon's defeat by a combined force of Russians, Austrians, Swedes and Prussians marked the end of his power east of the Rhine. The battle also consolidated Prussia's standing as the dominant state in Germany, with the corresponding eclipse of Napoleon's (former) allies Saxony, Bavaria and Württemberg.

The Saxons themselves, having been on the losing side (against Prussia, rather than for Napoleon, naturally...) saw no particular reason to commemorate the battle, but after German unification they couldn't do much to escape the craze for ruining good views by putting up vast and ugly monuments to glorify the German national spirit and the Hohenzollern dynasty. A huge granite tower, looking rather like the plinth for an invisible statue, dominates the Leipzig skyline and towers over the exhibition grounds to this day. It was inaugurated just in time for the centenary of the battle in October 1913.

Loest uses the story of the battle and monument as a skeleton for a critical examination of the last 180 years in the history of his city, through the eyes of the elderly museum caretaker and former explosives expert Alfred Linden, whom we have to take as at least a slightly unreliable narrator, given that he's being interviewed by a psychiatrist after having been caught trying to blow up the monument. Linden — born two days after the monument was inaugurated — identifies with a Saxon soldier killed in the aftermath of the battle, with a 19th century antiquary collecting skulls on the battlefield, with the socialist building worker Vojchiech Machulski, and with his own father, a quarryman who cut granite slabs for the monument.

Through their eyes and/or Alfred's, we get glimpses of the process of German unification, the Turner movement, abortive attempts at revolution before 1914, the horrors of World War I, the depression and the rise of the Nazis, and the bombing of Leipzig in World War II. After the war we see the pragmatic but rather unconvincing reinvention of the Battle of the Nations as a revolutionary victory (German-Russian brotherhood...) in the war against western imperialism, and the comic "rediscovery" of the printing works where Lenin might have printed Iskra. Alfred is able to point the commissioners charged with setting up a museum to a suitably old-looking shed in the right district, and help them to get their hands on some turn-of-the-century machinery. And a stuffed squirrel...

From that point on, things start to get darker: Alfred gets into trouble with the authorities when he is assigned to work on the demolition of the Paulinerkirche and university buildings in 1968 — buildings he and his father had worked to save from destruction during the fires of 1945 — he sees the city threatened on all sides by open-cast mining for the lignite that was the DDR's only important natural resource, and he comes convinced that it is his duty to destroy the monument that the city no longer deserves.

Maio 29, 1:55pm

Sic transit...

Where have you been keeping yourself? Actually, if you're somewhere on a crystalline beach swigging margaritas and ogling sand beauties, I'd rather not know... :)

Maio 29, 2:49pm

>68 LolaWalser: Well, actually I was on the beach yesterday, and you can’t have sand without crystals, but it was “brisk walk” weather on the North Sea coast, any beauties around were keeping their charms well wrapped up…

No, for some reason I’m going through a slow patch where books are concerned. Normal service will be resumed sooner or later, I’m sure.

BTW: I watched Eric Rohmer’s version of Kleist’s Marquise Von O the other day. An odd film of a very odd and disturbing story, taken very literally and I think mostly using Kleist’s dialogue as written, which made for an uncharacteristically silent female lead for a Rohmer film. Interesting to see Bruno Ganz as the Count, but Peter Lühr as the father seemed to be the only one who really knew how to deliver those lines.

Jun 1, 10:10am

Catching up a little bit — I've been working my way through Siri Hustvedt's back catalogue since I found out about her a few years ago, and I managed to slip this one in as the May/June read for our book-club:

The sorrows of an American (2008) by Siri Hustvedt (USA, 1955- )


This is a satisfyingly complex novel, tossing all sorts of interesting ideas around and avoiding predictable resolutions. Hustvedt draws partly on her late father's reminiscences of rural poverty in thirties Minnesota and military service in the Pacific, partly on her own New York circle of philosophers, psychotherapists, artists and Great Writers for a set of characters who seem to be there, inter alia, to make us question the importance we attach to secrets and their resolution in narrative processes like fiction, biography and psychoanalysis. Most people's lives, she seems to be arguing, are determined by the big, obvious things: war and poverty, accident and illness, the time, place and social class into which they are born. In comparison with these, the intriguing mysteries of adultery, paternity, secret loves or repressed childhood memories usually fade into insignificance.

Jun 1, 11:15am

And another from the "random German pile", which satisfyingly picks up the theme of Saxony from >25 thorold: and >67 thorold: and is relevant for the "childhood" theme too.

After doing an apprenticeship in retail, Wulf Kirsten got the chance to go to university (via an Arbeiter- und Bauernfakultät, cf. Die Aula) and became a publisher and a lyric poet based in Weimar. Since the Wende he's also become known as a prose writer.

Die Prinzessinnen im Krautgarten: eine Dorfkindheit (2000) by Wulf Kirsten (DDR, Germany, 1934- )


In eleven autobiographical essays, Kirsten remembers his childhood in the small Saxon village of Klipphausen, specifically the years from about 1943 to 1949. In part, it feels like a lyrical, nostalgic book, full of leisurely descriptions of big Elbe-valley landscapes, and long rambling anecdotes about ox-carts, childhood games and the two ageing princesses who owned the land most of the villagers worked on. But it's also almost brutally direct about the squalid realities of rural life and the experience of the war and its aftermath.

Kirsten's comic account of his misadventures as the most incompetent "Pimpf" in the Hitler-Jugend, for example, is set very explicitly against his memory of all the village boys just a few years older who were sent to the Russian front and never came back, and against his own realisation of how extraordinarily lucky he was that he was only ten when the war ended, and that Nazi power was over before he ever had to make a responsible moral choice about it.

The mixture of intelligent social awareness and semi-comic nostalgia reminded me in odd ways of Cider with Rosie. An interesting little book, anyway.


I was struck by how much Kirsten's memories overlap with things my mother (a few months younger than Kirsten) has told me about when she was sent to live with relatives in a small village in a quite different part of Germany in 1944-45. Even to things like playground songs, the incompetent teacher too old to be conscripted, the village school with four years in the same classroom, the cruelty of the village kids to anyone who stood out in any way from the norm, and the experience of the whole village moving into a cave to await the invasion (and nervously sending out an emissary to see what was happening when the rumble of tanks ceased).

Jun 2, 9:53am

A minor diversion from the TBR pile: this was a book I mentally wishlisted when I saw the initial reviews eleven years ago, but obviously forgot all about it soon after, until it popped up in one of those Guardian "top ten books about..." lists. Thanks to the instant gratification of ebooks, I got to it at last!

Lord Bingham was one of the most influential judges of his generation in England and Wales (he seems to have been very insistent on the "and Wales" bit), and held just about all the senior judicial offices available at one time or another. He's particularly associated with human rights law and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into English law, and of course he was in office during all the big constitutional reforms of the Blair years. This little book, written after his retirement from the bench, won him a posthumous Orwell Prize.

The rule of law (2010) by Tom Bingham (UK, 1933-2010)


(Author picture Biicl via Wikipedia)

The concept of "the rule of law" is something we hear a lot about, usually in contexts in which it is said to have broken down, and it's something most of us would probably cite as one of the necessary features of a well-run democratic state. But defining what it actually means is harder (especially if a mean professor won't let you use the words "rule" or "law" in your definition...).

In this little book, evidently written to appeal to general readers as well as lawyers (another reviewer here puts it very well: "the most wonderfully simple, jargon-free, crystal-clear prose that could be understood by any smart twelve-year-old"), Bingham takes us through the history of the concept — from Magna Carta and habeas corpus to the international conventions of the 20th century — and why it is important, and then looks in a little more detail at the most important implications the rule of law has in practice, in the requirements it sets for the law to be clear and accessible, in the restrictions it puts on arbitrary acts by representatives of the state, in the requirement of fairness, transparency and impartiality in court procedure, in the necessity of a proper system of legal protection for human rights, and in international law.

He also looks at how the rule of law has repeatedly been threatened by governments over-reacting to perceived emergencies, in particular to the various excesses of the Bush and Blair governments in the response to 9/11 — where he has, rather grudgingly, to admit that the British were at least less evil than the Americans in their draconian curtailments of human rights. He doesn't say so, but of course we know that was partly due to the fact that Blair had a Lord Bingham breathing down his neck...

It's interesting to see that he anticipates disputes between government and judiciary over judicial review as a future point of contention in Britain, and he criticises the British public for its acquiescence in the rapid growth of the surveillance society. Had he had the chance to write a second edition, he'd have had quite a bit to add on both of those.

A very clear, concise, and penetrating account of what law is for and how it works in a modern society: obviously it should be required reading for anyone going into either politics or the legal profession. My only minor disappointment was that Bingham didn't think of ending the book by quoting the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe — "...and I, my lords, embody the law". If anyone was ever entitled to use that exit line, he was!

Jun 2, 1:23pm

>70 thorold: any Hustvedt recommendations? I’ve listened to Memories of the Future and The Blazing World. What should be next?

Enjoyed catching up and glad you got some beach time in there somewhere.

Jun 2, 2:58pm

>73 dchaikin: I think those two were my favourites, so far, but I’d certainly recommend The sorrows of an American too. The summer without men was nice, but maybe a bit thinner. What I loved fits well with The blazing world (and has at least one character who crosses over into The sorrows of an American.

The only one that didn’t really impress me all that much was The enchantment of Lily Dahl. I haven’t got to The blindfold or any of the essays yet.

Jun 2, 3:22pm

Thanks, and interesting. I’ll have to think about it more.

Editado: Jun 3, 6:16am

This is one I picked up from a little free library a few months ago:

Divisadero (2007) by Michael Ondaatje (Canada, Sri Lanka, 1943- )


I can never quite make my mind up about Michael Ondaatje: sophisticated romance for people with university educations, or novels that expect us to take them seriously? He never seems to come off the fence, somehow. This one's a case in point: a positive delight to read, a kind of mashup between The virgin and the gypsy and one of those seventies films where Paul Newman and Robert Redford play professional gamblers; full of flattering allusions to French novelists he pretends to assume we've read, with a wealth of interesting settings in California and rural France; a cast of farmers, gamblers, gypsies, and carpenters; interesting romantic tensions between people who are somewhere between lovers and elective siblings, ambiguous scenes that may or may not be taking place in the characters' imaginations, connections across space and time, even a little dash of World War I. But it does leave you wondering afterwards what it's all for.

Jun 3, 5:51am

>76 thorold: I can never quite make my mind up about Michael Ondaatje: sophisticated romance for people with university educations, or novels that expect us to take them seriously?

You have summed up very nicely my struggle with him too. He's one of those writers who I feel always gets lost in his own idea of himself.

Jun 3, 5:44pm

>76 thorold: I can never quite make my mind up about Michael Ondaatje I thought that the trouble with Divisadero was that Ondaatje could not make up his mind about his book - I found it confusing. He is much better with Anil's Ghost which made me want to read everything that Ondaatje wrote, but after Divisadero I haven't

Jun 7, 12:08pm

I've had Bolaño's complete short stories on the go for a couple of years, as my e-reader keeps reminding me (it takes the cover as screensaver whenever I finish another ebook). Time to get to the fourth and final story collection in it:

Cuentos póstumos (El secreto del mal) (2007) by Roberto Bolaño (Chile, 1953-2003) (in Cuentos completos)


As the title implies, this collection brings together all Bolaño's stories that had not been published in book form at the time of his death, seventeen in all, most of them very short. The Collected Stories adds a further story, "El contorno del ojo," which won the author a prize in a story competition in Valencia at the very start of his professional career in 1983 but was not included in any of the previous collections.

The stories here are very pared-down and they leave most of the spadework as an exercise for the reader. Usually, Bolaño does little more than present us with two incongruous but overlapping sets of facts, which imply the existence of a narrative somewhere in the space between them, but don't bother to fill it in. In the title story, we never learn the secret of evil, if that is indeed what the mysterious stranger is about to tell the journalist he has summoned to a meeting on a Paris bridge in the early hours of the morning: the text is all about the anticipation of the meeting. Similarly, in "Muerte de Ulises" we learn nothing about the narrator's late friend Ulises Lima, except the unexpected discovery that he was admired by a bunch of Mexico City street-gang members who lived next-door to him.

The equally enigmatic, if slightly more expansive "El contorno del ojo" from twenty years earlier fits in with this pattern surprisingly well: a Chinese poet and army officer, convalescing in a small village after a breakdown, records a mixture of puzzling and banal events in his diary, but Bolaño doesn't allow the story to turn into the resolution of a mystery. If something odd is really going on other than in Chen's imagination, we don't get any external confirmation from the text.

While these are clearly some of his oddest and thus most interesting and rewarding stories, they probably wouldn't be a good place for anyone to start.

Jun 7, 1:14pm

And back to Germany...

This one fits in with the themes of postwar reconstruction from some of my reading earlier this year, as well as with my recent dip into the Rule of Law. I think it was another one spiphany suggested a while ago.

Ursula Krechel (originally from Trier, now based in Berlin) is a poet and playwright who in the last 15 years or so has moved on to writing a group of historical novels about Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. This is the second, and won the German Book Prize in 2012.

Landgericht (2012) by Ursula Krechel (Germany, 1947- )


In 1947, Judge Richard Kornitzer, removed from office by the Nazis in 1933 because of his Jewish descent and subsequently forced to go into exile in Cuba, finally manages to return to Germany to be reunited with his (non-Jewish) wife Claire, whom he hasn't seen for about ten years. He's keen to play his part in rebuilding German democracy, but German democracy doesn't seem to have been waiting very eagerly for returning exiles, and he finds his path back into professional life strewn with unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles.

He finds Claire, who had been a successful businesswoman in her own right in Weimar days, with her own firm and a splendid modernist apartment in Berlin, now sick and struggling through menial office and factory jobs in the rural south-west. Their children, sent to safety in England on a Kindertransport, are now nearly grown up and perfectly happy with their foster-parents in Suffolk, in no hurry to have their lives shaken up by parents they had long-since given up for dead, and whose language they can barely remember.

Krechel presents a detailed and very thoughtful and convincing study of the problem of reintegration for returning exiles, their unrealistic hopes, the jealousy felt by "ordinary" people who thought of themselves every bit as much "victims of fascism" as exiles who — as they must have seen it — were sitting on tropical beaches sipping rum cocktails whilst Germans were cowering in cellars listening to their houses being bombed. Not to mention the obvious reactions of self-protection, resentment and closing of ranks by those Germans whose political antecedents were not above criticism (the majority, after all) and the continuing echoes of years of antisemitic propaganda.

The later part of the book is also very interesting, as it describes the way Kornitzer's life is taken over by his fight for proper compensation for the wrongs he has suffered both in his professional career and in his private property at the hands of the German state, which of course is still his employer. Even out of the specific context it's a very recognisable description of the effects that sort of campaign can have on someone's health and career — I've seen that happen to colleagues a few times in real life, and it's always a frustrating and depressing experience.

I was slightly disappointed that the book didn't go very much into the specific problems of the Nazi legacy in the justice system, which is a big and fascinating topic in itself. Krechel clearly isn't a lawyer, and the few times she does venture into legal territory she gets rather tangled up (like most outsiders, she hasn't got a clue about patent law and how it works, for instance, but that's not all that important for the story). So she mostly treats Kornitzer's situation as a judge as a straightforward civil service job, spending far more time on career progression and personnel files than on court cases.

The other problem I had with the book is that, while it fictionalises the life of its central character, based loosely on the real Judge Robert Michaelis, it doesn't actually do much to exploit the fact that it is a novel and not a biography. Very few scenes are dramatised, and hardly anyone uses direct speech: most of what happens in the book is told in hindsight through excerpts from letters, files and official reports. I couldn't really work out why Krechel had bothered to change the names and call it a novel, except perhaps to allow her to move Kornitzer's exile from Shanghai (which Krechel had written about in her previous book) to Cuba.

Jun 7, 1:55pm

>79 thorold: where should one start with Bolaño? (I have read The Third Reich)

>80 thorold: this topic interests me a lot. Enjoyed your review.

Jun 7, 2:54pm

>81 dchaikin: I’m looking for advice on Bolaño’s novels myself! I started with the stories by chance, but I suspect that’s probably not the best way in, since a lot of them seem to be further development of characters and situations from the novels.

I have a suspicion that perhaps it’s all so interconnected that it really doesn’t matter where you start, but I’m sure someone else who’s read more will weigh in.

It doesn’t look as though there is an English translation of Landgericht yet, but there is a French one.

Fascinating to see that there’s a review on the Amazon page for the book posted by someone who says she is Ruth Barnett, daughter of the real Robert Michaelis (and thus the original of “Selma” in the book). She liked it, so it presumably doesn’t distort the experience of their family too badly.

Jun 8, 7:20am

>80 thorold: That's a fascinating topic area for a novel (or not novel - seems this book wasn't sure which to be). Given your peeves with the gaps in this book, have you read anything else that you'd recommend on this fascinating subject of Germany's integration issues after WWII?

Jun 8, 12:54pm

>82 thorold: ok. Will stay tuned if someone has advice, or if something else by Bolaño pops up around here.

Editado: Jun 8, 4:38pm

>83 AlisonY: It's tricky, everything has its problems, and a lot of what I've read is (a) very random and (b) not translated.

Also, there is actually very little about the specific topic of Jewish re-emigration, mostly because less than 5% of Jewish emigrants chose to return to Germany. Krechel's book is very unusual in treating it as a main theme. There are a lot more novels about communist emigrants returning to the DDR, e.g. Eugen Ruge's In times of fading light.

I came across this recent article which gives an interesting overview of the problems around Jewish re-emigration (in German):

The non-fiction 1949: das Lange Deutsche Jahr, which I read a couple of months ago, is probably my top pick at the moment, but isn't translated. You would probably need to go to English-language historians like Ian Kershaw, Richard Bessel or Christopher Clark, but I haven't read much there that's relevant (yet).

Klaus Mann's memoir The turning point is very good on his personal experience of returning to Germany after the war (in US uniform).

Otherwise, of course, about 90% of German fiction up to the late sixties, and quite a bit since then, deals in one way or another with the years directly after 1945. Much of it was written by people with little sympathy for emigrants, e.g. Böll, but still valuable and interesting despite that. A couple of easy points of entry would be Böll's The bread of those early years or Uwe Timm's The invention of curried sausage. Günter Grass is also easy to find in translation and has a lot of unfavourable things to say about the new Federal Republic.

One obvious outlier is W G Sebald, who was a different kind of emigrant himself and very interested in the phenomenon of emigration (Austerlitz, The emigrants).

ETA: …the elephant in the room, as someone is surely about to tell me, is Theodor Adorno, but I haven’t read enough to suggest anything.

Jun 9, 7:19am

>85 thorold: Thanks - noting these suggestions. It's hard to believe that even 5% of Jewish people chose to return to Germany again, and I can understand why few in Germany rushed to write about that extremely sensitive subject.

Anyway, having read quite a bit of different perspectives in Germany during WWII, I'm very much interested in reading about post-war Germany. This is definitely a gap for me, both in terms of fiction and non-fiction reads.

Editado: Jun 9, 1:18pm

On a completely different tack — a crime novel I picked up out of the Little Free Library a few weeks ago. I've been mildly curious about Ann Cleeves since watching a few episodes of the TV versions of Vera and Shetland, but haven't actually read any of her books before this.

Harbour Street (2014) by Ann Cleeves (UK, 1954- )


An elderly woman is murdered in a busy Metro train during the pre-Christmas rush, and the investigation leads DI Vera Stanhope to a small former fishing community on the fringes of Newcastle.

I found this a perfectly competent crime story, with a few nice features — turning Columbo into an unglamorous middle-aged Geordie woman is a clever touch, and I liked the way the investigation proceeded by careful interviewing of witnesses and piecing together of things that happened a long time ago, rather than any fancy stuff with forensics or computer hacking — but it didn't really have anything to make me want to rush out and buy all the other books in the series. The dialogue is sound but not exactly witty, the location stuff isn't overdone, there's a refreshing absence of usual staples like divorces, heavy drinking, comic pathologists and you're-off-the-casery, but she does give in to a couple of clichés (maybe TV pressure?): the detective has a quaint old car, and one of her colleagues has a young daughter who finds herself in jeopardy at the climax of the story (tip for young women: avoid having parents who are fictional detectives).

So, very much in the "mostly harmless" category.

Editado: Jun 9, 11:48am

And a book of cult status I read far too long ago and have been meaning to re-read for ages:

L'écume des jours (1947; Froth on the daydream/Mood indigo/Foam of the daze) by Boris Vian (France, 1920-1959)


By Vian's standards, this is a surprisingly simple story: Colin and Chloe are destroyed by a universe that can't stand to see anyone that happy; Chick and Alise by Chick's uncontrollable addiction to collecting artefacts connected with megastar-philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (author of Le vomi, La lettre et le néon, and hundreds of other immortal texts). Sophocles would already have known what to do with a plot like that, but of course it wouldn't have turned out anything like as bizarre in his hands.

With Vian in charge, Colin and Chick start off with the blissful innocence of Bertie Wooster and Bingo Little, generating harmonious mixed drinks by inputting Duke Ellington tunes into Colin's pianocktail machine and being served superb meals by his impeccable manservant Nicolas, but by the end of the book they have moved into something more like Kafka's version of The picture of Dorian Gray. Medics, priests, a pharmacist, employers, booksellers and an avant-la-lettre SWAT team have all taken what they can get; even Colin's wonderful modernist apartment has developed a weird malaise that makes it turn slowly into a crumbling garret.

The whole thing is peppered with Vian's unforgettable twists of logic — even the ones we'd prefer to forget, like the trained cyber-rabbits in the pharmacy that produce those wonderfully even round pills, as rabbits do... But, under the comedy, there's real anger and sadness about the arbitrary cruelty of the world we live in, some of it avoidable and man-made, most not.

Jun 9, 1:06pm

>87 thorold: is that a penn name? (And, if so…why?)

>88 thorold: all new to me. Enjoyed your review.

Jun 9, 1:29pm

>89 dchaikin: No, Cleeves seems to be her late husband’s family name (not “Cleves” as I originally had it — sorry!)

It took me years of regularly passing through the German border-town of Kleve before I ever stopped there, discovered that it was Cleves in English and made the connection with Henry VIII…

Bas posted a more detailed review of L’écume des jours about a year ago.

Jun 9, 2:49pm

>90 thorold: apologies to Bas, it didn’t stick.

Jun 10, 10:41am

I don't often buy ebooks without reading them right away, but that's what must have happened to this one: I can only guess that I must have bought it together with others before a journey and then forgotten it. Possibly someone recommended it, or I was working my way down a list of Goncourt winners. Anyway, I thought I might as well read it to find out what it was...

Je m'en vais (1999; I'm off / I'm gone) by Jean Echenoz (France, 1947- )


This is an odd, but very engaging, mixture of male-mid-life-crisis novel, treasure-hunt thriller, and good old fashioned French série noire crime story, all with an ironic post-modern twist. The very citified Félix Ferrer, in the middle of a divorce and proprietor of a struggling gallery in an unfashionable district of Paris, is trying to restore his fortunes by recovering a cache of Inuit artworks from a ship that's been icebound in the Canadian arctic for half a century (yes, that's right, this is a polar polar...). He's also trying to navigate his way between an improbable number of girlfriends, and there appears to be some kind of sinister conspiracy going on in the background as well...

The crime plot is fun, but not really what this is all about: it's much more a vehicle for Echenoz to feed us his ironic observations about Paris, the art-world, ice-breakers and their crews, middle-aged men, and the bottom-left corner of France. Which he does very well.

An entertaining read, with lots of clever touches, and a plot that doesn't always go down the most obvious road, but from the distance of twenty years it's hard to see it as the winner of a major literary prize. Maybe 1999 was a thin year?

Jun 13, 1:00pm

More e-reader "housekeeping" — I started this in a fit of optimism when I was starting to make serious efforts to learn Italian in September 2015, but progress was frustratingly slow, and it's been sitting at 60% read for years. So long, in fact, that I've had to re-download it a couple of times and at some point it changed from the memorable original cover with the wedding party to a rather bland TV tie-in cover.

Anyway, my Italian seems to have advanced a bit in the meantime, I managed to finish it off in a couple of afternoons on the balcony, and even had time to go back and re-read the Prologue.

L'amica geniale (2011; My brilliant friend) by Elena Ferrante (Italy, - )


Everyone else has already read this, so there's no real need to summarise it! I found it a very direct and engaging account of the experience of growing up in a working-class neighbourhood and of the strength of childhood friendships. There is a certain amount of shameless nostalgia, but it's mostly there to help Ferrante smuggle in some hard-hitting realities about the precariousness of existence in that kind of community, especially for women, the vulnerability of everyone to exploitation by employers, landlords and gangsters (interchangeable categories in Naples), the damage done to the community by the culture of "honour" and bella figura, and the ambivalent position of those, like the narrator Elena, who try to escape by way of education. The book as a whole is also a very nice account of how the way we see the world changes as we grow older: although the Prologue has established that Elena is narrating the story with hindsight in old age, in the text itself she is fairly rigorous about not telling us anything other than the things she was aware of at the time.

I was rather hoping that I'd decide that I didn't like this enough to go on and read the other two (three in the meantime), but I'm starting to get the feeling that I'm committed for the long run!

Jun 13, 1:32pm

...and a crime series I've been meaning to try for a long time. Quite apart from being one of the few crime writers to have the honour of another writer naming a detective after him, Vázquez Montalbán counts as a very influential figure in all kinds of different contexts, and his name seems to have come up repeatedly in things I've been reading lately. I picked this one arbitrarily because it seems to be his most popular. It's the fourth in the Pepe Carvalho series (but only the third in which Carvalho appears in his role as a detective):

Los mares del Sur (1979; Southern Seas) by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (Spain, 1939-2003)


A prominent Barcelona businessman has disappeared, telling his friends he's off on a journey to the South Seas; a year later, his body turns up, newly stabbed to death, on a building site in the city. The widow commissions hard-boiled private detective Pepe Carvalho to find out what happened to her husband during the missing year.

The investigation proceeds in traditional noir fashion, with Carvalho interviewing a series of people who were close to the dead man, and going to bed with some of them. But there's also a very clear element of social criticism, Carvalho looking with a jaundiced eye on the way the city is changing during the transition to democracy, especially the way that the class of people who made money out of it in Franco's time are reinventing themselves as new-style 1980s "entrepreneurs" whilst the left carries on with the usual internal squabbles and fails to seize the opportunity. And, trademark of the series, there is Carvalho's very close attention to what he and others eat and drink. Interviews with witnesses can easily stray off into detailed technical discussions about recipes, culinary heresies, and the right and wrong way to drink white wine — all of which, of course, end up telling us a lot about the characters concerned.

There's a spoilt little rich girl straight out of Raymond Chandler, but, perhaps unexpectedly, Carvalho is rather less given to actual drunkenness than most noir detectives. All the same, the pivotal scene of the story is a gloriously drunken bachelor evening of arguments about paella and poetry that leaves Carvalho with the kind of headache that can only lead to an inspiration about where to pursue his enquiries. There's another magnificent scene where he strays into a round-table discussion about detective fiction and things suddenly get very postmodern...

Another series I'm obviously going to have to pursue further.

Jun 13, 9:37pm

>93 thorold: I haven't read it! But it's high up on my list.

Jun 14, 10:44am

And one grabbed more or less at random from the TBR pile, where it's been for nearly a year. I keep meaning to have a proper (re-)read of West, but so far I've only gone back to a couple of her novels over the past few years.

Rebecca West : a life (1987) by Victoria Glendinning (UK, 1937- )


Dame Rebecca West (Cicely Fairfield in private life) had a literary career that spanned most of the 20th century, and she seems to have been just as feared and respected a journalist when she was writing suffragette polemics in her teens as she was when she was reporting on the Iranian Embassy siege — happening outside her windows in Kensington — aged ninety. Many of her book reviews, with the famous knockout blow in the first sentence, became legendary. But her fiction often seems a little bit intimidating, tucked away in that pile of Viragos we mean to get around to one day, and overshadowed by its autobiographical elements, particularly the relationship with H G Wells and her long-running feud with their son Anthony West, a lot of it conducted through competing novels. And then there's the whole complicated business of her stance on Yugoslavia and her objection to Churchill switching his support from Mihailović to Tito. Lots of scope for biographers to get side-tracked.

Victoria Glendinning knew Rebecca West in the last couple of decades of her life, and, with a track-record of biographies of Great Female Writers, was obviously signed up as a safe pair of hands to tell her side of the story and defend her against the inevitable posthumous attack from Anthony. All the same, this isn't quite a bland "official biography". Glendinning is quite prepared to admit that her subject had her faults, that her famous determination to speak her mind in print and take no prisoners went together with a dangerously thin skin, and that her feminism and independence were never entirely free from the gender attitudes of her Edwardian childhood. Those contradictions, perhaps, were what made her so interesting, but they also gave her a difficult life. Because of the sort of person she was, it took her ten years to accept that she would never be anything more than "the other woman" (or rather, one of them) in the relationship with Wells; it brought her a humiliating and distressing rejection when she tried to turn a fling with Lord Beaverbrook(!) into a relationship, and of course it particularly hurt her relationship with her son.

Glendinning calls this a "little biography", and at 250 pages of text it's certainly quite short by the standards of the genre, but it packs quite a lot of thoughtful analysis into that space, sparing us a lot of the day to day detail that we probably didn't really want anyway. If you're a serious student of West's work, you'll probably want something with more footnotes and a more detailed bibliography, and perhaps with a bit more outsider's perspective on the quarrels, but otherwise this seems like a very good place to start.

Jun 14, 11:11am

>96 thorold: Great review. Thanks.

Editado: Jun 14, 11:46am

>80 thorold:
I don't remember in what context I might have mentioned Krechel's Landgericht, but I agree with your assessment of it -- the book falls somewhat short as a novel on several levels, but it's nonetheless highly effective as a (slightly fictionalized) documentation of the project of rebuilding post-war de-Nazified society and the experience of Jewish re-emigration.

>83 AlisonY:, >85 thorold:
A couple of authors who come to mind regarding the topic of emigre and Jewish perspectives on post-war Germany are Stefan Heym and Jurek Becker (both of whom, possibly not coincidentally, settled in East Germany and had an uneasy relationship with the socialist government).

Becker's best known for Jacob the Liar, but he's also written some other novels set in the post-war era that deal with the legacy of the Holocaust; several of them have been translated into English, though I can't make any specific recommendations.

Heym was a committed communist and politics often play a more prominent role in his work than Jewish themes. My favorite novel of his so far -- Schwarzenberg -- is a utopian story based loosely on real events about how a village left in an unoccupied zone at the end of the war began setting up its own government. It hasn't been translated, but a lot of his work has, or was written in English in the first place.

Edgar Hilsenrath is another interesting author in this context. From what I understand he returned to Germany on a temporary basis later in his life in order to maintain the connection to the language. He's never been particularly well known in Germany, probably because his rather earthy humor doesn't sit well with what Germans expect fiction responding to Nazi war crimes should sound like. Most of his work has been translated into English, i.e., The Nazi and the Barber. (I see he was born in Halle, which somehow I feel like I should have known...)

For women writers from the younger generation, i.e., those born at the very end of the war, I loved the first volume of Ulla Hahn's autobiography (the Hilla Palm books; the only reason I haven't read the others is because I'm afraid they won't measure up to the first!). I also liked Renate Feyl's presumably semi-autobiographical Ausharren im Paradies for its convincing portrait of how the father figure switches with apparently little cognitive dissonance from being a committed Nazi to a committed supporter of the socialist government.

And as a bit of synchronicity regarding >67 thorold:
a film Tage des Sturms being shown on MDR on 17 June (the anniversary of the uprising of 1953) caught my attention: the screenplay was written by Erich Loest...

Jun 14, 12:29pm

>98 spiphany: Thanks! I’m sure you’ll see some of those names coming back to haunt you as well :-)

The only Heym I’ve read so far is 5 Tage im Juni, which I was a bit lukewarm about. But I’ve certainly been meaning to get to Becker sooner or later. Especially since he wrote a book called Irreführung der Behörden! The others are all new to me.

Jun 14, 12:50pm

>93 thorold: “ I'm starting to get the feeling that I'm committed for the long run!” - yay!

Jun 14, 5:08pm

Much quality catching up... Re >94 thorold:, it's been a long while and I read them out of order (not all of them either, but before I kept track), but I do want to say, don't miss The Buenos Aires Quintet. Grim (as can be expected) but also one of the best books about the Argentinian leaden years.

Jun 16, 4:23am

>100 dchaikin: >101 LolaWalser: That's the wonderful — and scary — paradox about books; the more you read, then more there are you haven't read yet...

On to something else I didn't know I needed to read. This caught my eye purely because its joky title echoes one of Léo Malet's joky titles: I opened it to find out what it was and was hooked very quickly...

Les eaux troubles du mojito: et autres belles raisons d'habiter sur terre (2015) by Philippe Delerm (France, 1950- )


Teacher and occasional sports journalist Philippe Delerm seems to be known mainly as an author of little prose-poems, although he's also written novels, lyrics and memoirs, amongst other things. This 2015 collection contains around forty short prose pieces, mostly in the region of 300 words, each focussing as a lyric poem might on a single, quite specific experience. Most are pleasures of one sort or another — belles raisons d'habiter sur Terre like the texture of water-melon, the turbidity of the mojito, the colour of Venetian spritz, the smile it brings to other people's faces to see the narrator's small grandson immersed in a new book on the way home from the bookshop, the early-morning atmosphere of the seaside resort where M Hulot spent his famous holidays, the banquet on the last page of an Astérix story, and so on — but a few are darker, like the sight of the narrator's mother trying to make sense of her place in a care-home for Alzheimer's patients.

I don't know if Delerm's little pieces add to our understanding of sensual experiences at all, but they are very enjoyable to read in themselves: this would be a great book to give someone who doesn't read much but might need a little bit of positive energy from time to time.

Editado: Jun 16, 4:49am

And a Maigret, simply because I'm in the mood for crime and I haven't read one for ages:

Félicie est là (1944; Félicie / Maigret and the toy village) by Georges Simenon (France, 1903-1989)


Another Maigret published in wartime but set back in the idyllic thirties when there was nothing much to worry about beyond murder, robbery, gangland feuds and speculative building...

Simenon takes Maigret into the unusual setting of a crude new middle-class suburban development in the Seine valley, but it soon turns out that the murder of a retired accountant there has its roots in much more familiar territory: the nightclubs and brothels of Montmartre, and the Norman fishing community of Fécamp.

The story turns on Maigret's frustratingly slow progress into the confidence of the most important witness in the case, the dead man's insufferable housekeeper Félicie. This is often very funny, but it also reads rather uncomfortably at times. Simenon and Maigret clearly have a lot of sympathy with her position as a poorly educated but ambitious young woman from a deprived, working-class rural background, Eliza Doolittle without the brains, but Simenon also allows Maigret to patronise her appallingly, treating her like a little girl in the end. He literally puts her to bed with a hot drink at the most exciting point in the story...

Technically not a bad crime story, but in social terms it really isn't one that stands the test of time.

Jun 16, 9:24am

...and whilst the sun goes on shining and there are crime stories on the TBR...

Blind date (1998) by Frances Fyfield (UK, 1948- )


A satisfying, morally ambiguous twist on the familiar old serial killer theme, which manages to go the full nine tailors whilst still feeding us enough red herrings to get the fishing fleet safely through Brexit. And manages to turn South Devon into nightmare country...

As ever, I found it a bit hard to warm to Fyfield's characters, but the plotting is clever and keeps you guessing, mostly without the use of any obvious bamboozling devices.

Jun 16, 1:23pm

>102 thorold: assuming Google translate got it right, that is a great title.

Editado: Jun 16, 6:27pm

>47 tonikat: I read Johnny Got His Gun decades ago and still think its the best anti war novel around. Had no idea of Trumbo's history, until watching the movie with Bryan Cranston. He wrote Roman Holiday? who knew? Amazing life and Cranston as usual does an excellent job in that role

ETA just catching up here, and glad you saw the movie. BTW another must see on the subject is Woody Allens The Front. Wish I could remember the song at the end, but it made my cry.

I didn't know about the red scare till my hs did The Crucible, supposedly about the witchcraft hunt of the 1600s, but really about what was happening at the time.

Jun 19, 3:56am

This is the book the title of >102 thorold: reminded me of. Out of sequence in my read-through of the Nouveaux Mystères de Paris, but it scarcely matters:

Les Eaux troubles de Javel (1957) by Léo Malet (France, 1909-1996)


This instalment takes private eye Nestor Burma into the 15th arrondissement. The long-established industrial district of Javel on the bank of the Seine became famous a couple of centuries ago for the production of hypochlorite bleach, still called "Eau de Javel" in everyday French. By Nestor Burma's time it was better-known as the site of André Citroën's car factory, also now long-gone...

Against his better judgment, Nestor takes on some unpaid work, when the pregnant girlfriend of his onetime protégé Delessy asks him to find her missing partner. His investigation takes him into the car factory and various local bars, and a cast of Algerian gangsters and/or freedom-fighters as well as the obligatory beautiful women, who confusingly both use the same unusual perfume, although only one of them is required by the dictates of the plot to bash Nestor on the head with a blunt instrument. There's also a famous clairvoyante, who doubles as an illegal abortionist. Good fun for all the family, as usual, and plenty of linguistic fireworks, although there is perhaps a slightly darker overall tone than usual: Nestor seems to be getting older and more convinced of the fundamental nastiness of life.

Jun 19, 5:31am

...and the obligatory follow-up to >96 thorold:

The Young Rebecca : writings of Rebecca West 1911-1917 (1982) by Rebecca West (UK, 1892-1983), edited by Jane Marcus


Imagine if a teenager from a provincial background in the remote north, having dropped out of high school to devote her energies to activism for the biggest grass-roots protest movement of the day, were to start telling the world's great thinkers and statesmen where they have been going wrong all these years...

It's very tempting to make clumsy comparisons between Rebecca West's first, dynamite-laden, ventures into political and literary journalism in the early 20th century and our problems of a century later, and to reflect on how little has changed in the self-interested thick-headedness of the older generation and their (our) refusal to listen to rational argument and see the need for urgent change in the world.

Obviously, in reality, much has changed in the world since then. No paper these days would dare to print anything as outspoken as a Rebecca West book review uncensored: if they weren't sued for defamation by the author they would at least be permanently blacklisted by the publisher and lose all their advertising. They would never employ an underage contributor without a single formal educational qualification to her name, and if by some chance she did manage to get her political articles published, the world would be much more interested in seeing photographs of her Smooching with Famous Author than in the substance of her arguments...

This collection is divided roughly fifty-fifty between book reviews and political essays, mostly from 1911-1913 when it looked as though the women's suffrage campaign was close to a breakthrough, but carrying on into the war years (when her journalism was slowed down a bit by being out of London and looking after her young son).

On the literary side, everyone from Hall Caine, Strindberg and Mrs Humphrey Ward to forgotten popular novelists of the time gets a thorough pasting. Arnold Bennett, D H Lawrence and Ford Maddox Ford (Hueffer) are the only writers who get anything like thoroughly positive reviews (and in Bennett's case it's obviously at least in part done to provoke, because everyone else looks down on him). Other writers she admires, like Hardy and H G Wells, still get taken to task for major flaws in their books, especially in their representations of women. It's typical of her that she's just as savage with Wells after they became lovers as she was before they met: it clearly would never have crossed her mind to allow the person to get mixed up with the book.

The political articles are mostly about feminist issues and the suffrage campaign — West clearly has a huge amount of respect for the individual campaigners and takes every opportunity to remind us of the way they are being mistreated under Asquith's hard-line approach, but she also makes it clear that she feels the WSPU under the Pankhursts has made a disastrous strategic error by focussing on direct action by a small group of hardcore middle-class activists rather than building up mass working-class support and forcing the unions and the Labour Party to listen to women workers. (The collection also includes a biographical essay about Mrs Pankhurst written twenty years later, in which West acknowledges the huge contribution she and her daughters made to getting the suffrage campaign going, but maintains her reservations about the way the movement developed.)

Reading her account of the political manoeuvring around the suffrage issue, in particular the repeated betrayals of trust by Lloyd George, Ramsay McDonald and others and the way it all got tangled up with Ireland, it's again hard not to make comparisons with more recent events in the UK...

One constant theme in the essays is that the most urgent issue for women is not the vote, or access to higher education and professions, but equal pay. The fiction that women are only working to support themselves, and therefore don't need to earn as much as male "breadwinners", is what pushes so many women workers into hunger and poverty. Especially relevant in West's day, since this was before statutory old age pensions came in for most people, so many "single" women were actually supporting elderly parents by their work, whilst married women and widows were likely to be supporting children and often also unemployed or disabled husbands.

We also get some engaging diatribes about the arrogance of charitable trusts that see domestic service as the only career the girls in their care should be trained for, and about the urgent need for decent accommodation for young working women that treats them as responsible adults, away from the patronising evangelical monopoly of the YWCA. West has fun repeatedly puncturing the bubble of "the white slave trade", a form of crime that the press, Parliament and pressure groups spent endless amounts of time devising remedies for, even though there was no good reason to believe that it had ever existed.

It's fun to go back into these issues, some still active and relevant, others long-settled, but the real interest of course is West's devastatingly clear ability to set out her arguments on paper. She can be calm, passionate, funny, sophisticated or faux-naive as the occasion demands, but she always gets her message across to the reader and leaves you wondering how anyone could possibly disagree. As with all politically engaged writing, you have to remind yourself that the people who disagree probably never bothered to read it. Asquith might perhaps have had someone in his office look through the Freewoman, but he certainly never had it propped up against his coffee-pot in the mornings...

Jun 19, 11:42am

Department of random treasures — this is a bit of Dutch culture I didn't know about until I noticed a very 1950s-looking paperback in the little free library and thought that it might warrant further inspection...

Memoires of Gedenkschriften van minister Pieter Bas (1936) by Godfried Bomans (Netherlands, 1913-1971), illustrated by Harry Prenen


This is an uncharacterisable, but quite glorious, bit of sophisticated silliness: Bomans pretends to be editing the unfinished memoirs of the distinguished elder statesman Pieter Bas, which unfortunately "end where most political memoirs begin", at the point where Bas is just about to leave university and embark on his long career in local, national and international politics. Despite a substantial advance from his publisher, all that His Excellency has got around to committing to paper by the time of his death is a jolly account of his childhood in Dordrecht in the 1850s and 60s, with special reference to the eccentricities of his teachers and to the pretty girls he used to take for walks along the Merwede, and a few notes of his student days in Leiden.

Bomans was a big Dickens fan, the Dutch translator of Pickwick Papers, and a lot of the humour and atmosphere here is straight out of Dickens, but there's also obviously a lot that comes from his own memories of growing up in a middle-class family in a Dutch provincial town, and from his father's political career. It's not heavy-duty political satire, by any means, but a gentle teasing of people who take themselves too seriously and forget that the experience of childhood and adolescence is not merely a training ground but — crucially — also an important part of life in itself.

The Victorian-style drawings by Bomans' partner-in-crime, Harry Prenen, are exactly what the text needs to complete it.

Jun 20, 4:19pm

catching up - enjoyed your review of The Young Rebecca I think I might enjoy that. I must also try something by Léo Malet

Jun 21, 4:06am

>110 baswood: Apologies for the recent torrent of books — a heat-wave last week kept me stuck on the balcony, and then I had my second jab and a few days of that deliciously harmless state of feeling just ill enough not to want to do anything other than sit and read...

Another crime story, this time from the diminishing "random German pile":

Walching (1993) by Robert Hültner (Germany, 1950- )


In the winter of 1922, Inspector Kajetan finds himself investigating the murder of a young girl on a remote Bavarian farm. Needless to say, it isn't as simple a case as it looks, and the three unemployed men arrested near the scene of the crime are curiously reluctant to confess. Surely Kajetan's superiors couldn't be implicated in a right-wing conspiracy to grab power in Munich? And that abandoned mine mentioned in passing in the opening pages surely can't be going to turn out to be in use as a secret arms cache...?

Well, yes, unfortunately this is about as predictable as a Weimar Krimi can be, and the thrilling underground episodes of the closing chapters are only missing Timmy the dog. Hültner has a long and distinguished career writing for film and TV, and it shows.

But, despite that, I liked the way he treats his main character: Kajetan isn't a rebel ahead of his time, he's a perfectly believable Bavarian policeman, who's grown up believing in the infallibility of the courts, the universal guilt of the poor, and the inestimable value of investigative techniques based on shouting a lot and hitting suspects where it doesn't show. It's only in the confused new post-war world that he's starting to question the morality of some of the things he and his colleagues are asked to do.

Editado: Jun 21, 4:57am

And a French/Belgian author I haven't tried before:

Odette Toulemonde et autres histoires (2006; The most beautiful book in the world) by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt (France, Belgium, 1960- )


A collection of short stories, all with female protagonists. Schmitt tells us they were written ("illegally") in intervals of dead time during the making of his film Odette Toulemonde. The story of the same name in this book is a different working out of the idea of the film, where a Famous Writer turns up, in search of the secret of happiness, on the Charleroi doorstep of the working class widow Odette who has written him a fan-letter. (Think "Belgian Willy Russell"...)

"Le plus beau livre du monde" (title story of the English version of this collection) is apparently a true story, told to Schmitt during a visit to Russia, and describes how a group of women prisoners in Siberia got the chance to smuggle out a collective letter to their children, and had to decide how how to use those few lines most effectively.

Otherwise, it's fairly standard short-story territory: A wealthy serial divorcée meets the man she manipulated into initiating her sexually, decades ago; a happily married woman changes her hairstyle and discovers that a lot of the past needs to be rewritten; a woman who has trouble accepting the imperfection of the world around her finds a way to happiness through talking about the weather; a bad actor finds out the truth about the happy night he shared with a beautiful woman many years before; we see the frightening reality of dementia from the inside.

It's all treated very smoothly and sympathetically, there are plenty of little jokes and nice bits of observation, and the characters are agreeable people to spend time with. But the stories move towards the obligatory twist in a slightly too orderly fashion, almost as though they are being prepared as examples for a writing workshop, and someone should have told Schmitt that you can't get away with so many sudden heart attacks in one book. (If you are ever cast as a character in a Schmitt story, consult your cardiologist before agreeing!)

Editado: Jun 24, 5:31am

Two non-fiction books by Daniel Pennac (cf. >65 thorold: above)

Comme un roman (1992; The rights of the reader) by Daniel Pennac‬ (France, 1944- )
Chagrin d'école (2007; School blues) by Daniel Pennac‬ (France, 1944- )


Comme un roman is a short book — an extended essay, really — about the pleasure of reading and the risk we run of losing that pleasure as adolescents in the hands of the school system. As a parent, a teacher, a writer and a former adolescent, Pennac is able to put himself in turn into all the different roles involved in the epic struggle between the teenager and Madame Bovary (which refuses to advance beyond page 48, whilst the book-report is due to be handed in tomorrow morning), and as a novelist he can't resist dramatising those scenes for us, so it's fun to read, but there's a real message there as well.

Pennac insists that what kills the desire to read for pleasure is not parental apathy or video games, television or the Walkman, but the way school turns reading into a task that is scored and evaluated, with production quotas and the expectation that we should be able to make the correct sort of intelligent comments about what we have read, and the corresponding fear of being labelled ignorant or lazy if we don't accomplish the task in the right way. He describes his strategy — borrowed from the actor/poet Georges Perros — for overcoming that hurdle by reading aloud ("gratuitously and unconditionally") to his teenage students to reintroduce them to the idea that books contain stories written to entertain the reader. He waits until they have been bitten by the bug and started to read again on their own account before moving on to the books he's supposed to be teaching. And the book concludes with his charter of "basic rights of the reader", which starts, significantly, with the right not to read.

Chagrin d'école is a more substantial book that builds up from the ideas of Comme un roman into a wider discussion of how the education system deals with students who can't or won't learn. Pennac tells us that he himself was bottom of the class for most of his school days, and as a teacher he spent his career in schools with a large proportion of "problem students".

There's a lot of material — autobiography, anecdote, descriptions of visits to schools as a writer, problems shared by friends who are parents, and a lot more — and it isn't always very clear where he's going: this was obviously a book that took a long time to write and changed course a few times in the process. All the same, it's clearly heartfelt, and Pennac has a lot of sympathy for kids who have fallen out of the boat in one way or another and feel that they have been written off.

The most important thing he wants to get across seems to be that we should avoid generalising, especially the fashionable French demonisation of young people from certain notorious mostly-immigrant neighbourhoods. Also, he reminds us that social exclusion and violence are nothing new in the education system, what has changed is the way we perceive them. In the fifties no-one seemed to be over-worried about the number of young people leaving school early without qualifications: there were plenty of jobs where they were needed.

Another point Pennac makes a number of times is that lack of academic progress is often mostly a matter of self-confidence in the student: if you go through a bad patch for some reason, and parents and teachers keep telling you that you are wasting your life and will never amount to anything, there's a point at which it becomes easier to identify yourself as a "hopeless case", rather than to keep trying and failing. Kids in that kind of situation can often get back on track if they have the luck to find a motivated teacher who isn't prepared to let them give up on themselves. He credits his own recovery from dunce-status to four very determined teachers who taught him during his numerous attempts to pass his baccalaureate. But of course he accepts that there are some kids who have serious social or medical problems that need to be solved first before they can be made to appreciate Flaubert and Corneille, and some who are so difficult to help that the system is always going to let them down in the end.

Jun 24, 6:08am

>113 thorold: Sounds like books full of the wisdom of experience and a healthy dollop of common sense.

Jun 24, 6:43am

>114 baswood: Sounds like books full of the wisdom of experience and a healthy dollop of common sense.

Yes, that’s how they struck me: the pragmatic and witty reflections of someone with a lot of first-hand experience. But I’ve never stood up in front of a class of stroppy teenagers myself, so I’m not really qualified to judge.

Editado: Jun 25, 4:48am

The third-longest-resident book on the TBR shelf, where it has been since March 2012. It's a pleasant early nineties Folio Society edition, with some nice engravings by Alexy Pendle, but it looks as though I bought it secondhand here in the Netherlands, not direct from FS.

The Kellys and the O'Kellys : or landlords and tenants (1848) by Anthony Trollope (UK, 1815-1882)


(Not the cover of my copy, but this one makes a better header for a post...)

Trollope's second novel, published in 1848, and not the breakthrough he was hoping for (that would only come with The Warden, seven years later). With hindsight, the middle of the great famine was a spectacularly tactless moment to publish a pleasant social comedy set in rural Ireland, and Trollope obviously didn't do himself any favours by setting the opening chapter in the public gallery at the 1844 trial of Daniel O'Connell — very much old news by 1848, as O'Connell had died in obscurity the previous year, and it also gave readers the misleading idea that this was going to be a political novel. The subtitle, "landlords and tenants", also promises a wider social range than the book actually delivers: the tenants in this case (the Kellys) are very middle-class, while the O'Kelly landlords are superficially-anglicised country squires, only a rung or so higher on the social ladder, and more or less level with their tenants economically.

There are some signs of beginner's clumsiness — Martin Kelly's elder brother John, for instance, introduced in the opening pages as though he were a major character, but then never mentioned again — but overall Trollope gives us a very pleasant and readable story, with plenty of glimpses of what is to come. There's the splendid fox-hunting parson, Mr Armstrong who, through the absurdities of an established protestant church in a catholic country, has precisely one parishioner outside his own family (which is arranged along the lines of that of the future Parson Quiverfull). Or that gloriously dignified bear of very little brain, the Earl of Cashel, "ruling the world of nothingness around by the silent solemnity of his inertia". Or Mrs O'Kelly, "a very small woman, with no particularly developed character, and perhaps of no very general utility."

We get a fox-hunting chapter, a lot of dialect, and far more detailed financial transactions than we could possibly want, but we all know that's part of the price we have to pay for enjoying Trollope, and put up with it. And there are some nice surprises, too. This is possibly the only place in Victorian fiction where a lawyer is significantly less dastardly than his client, for instance. And whilst Trollope uses the conventional idea of parallel "high" and "low" plots, he resists the temptation to play the low plot for laughs and give all the dignity to his upper-class characters: dignity and absurdity are even-handedly distributed on both sides of the social divide — and in any case, he wants us to see that the social divide in an Irish provincial setting is really much smaller than English readers would have imagined.

Not mature Trollope, not a place to start if you haven't read him before, but good fun and definitely worth a look.

Jun 25, 10:22am

>116 thorold: Not one I'd known of, but you've convinced me. I do like those Oxford covers.

Editado: Jun 29, 5:03am

The third part of J J Voskuil's epic saga of Dutch civil-service life, Het Bureau. I finished part one in April last year, part two in February. No promises about when I'll get to part seven...

Plankton (1997) by J J Voskuil (Netherlands, 1926-2008)


This third part only advances Maarten Koning's career by some 25 months, from the end of 1972 to the beginning of 1975. In the background there are things like the oil crisis and the car-free Sundays, the increasing visibility of Surinamese people in the Netherlands, and the start of the agitation against the Amsterdam Metro. But the story really seems to be about what we'd now call "work-life balance", as Maarten's responsibilities in the Office start to pile up and his work-stress increases, putting pressure on his marriage. Voskuil emphasises this by giving us fewer scenes from Maarten's private life than in the previous parts, most of which turn out to be either centred around work or around extra worries that pile up the stress, like the decline into old age of his father and his mother-in-law.

At work, there is plenty of the usual wealth of small, insignificant incidents that obliquely tell us so much about the characters involved, and there are a couple of bigger storylines, related to wider disputes in the field of ethnology between those — like the Flemish Professor Pieters and the Yugoslav Professor Horvatic — who see ethnological research as a way of rediscovering ancient local traditions and those in the younger generation — like Maarten — who argue that "immutable tradition" is a mistaken idea and cultural practices can never be isolated from historical and social factors. One of the most memorable scenes in the book is a showdown between Maarten and Horvatic at a conference in Hungary, although I thought the very best scene so far was a description of a busy morning in Maarten's office somewhere towards the end of 1974, where Voskuil just piles on one important but unconnected problem after another, too quickly for any of them to be dealt with before the next one arrives, so that Maarten already has about eight balls in the air at the same time when the phone rings and someone announces that there's a man here to see about the linoleum. We've all been there...

Editado: Jun 29, 11:51am

This little book has been on my TBR pile since February 2016 — I brought it back from the charity shop with a few other Camilleri books, but it stuck on the shelf when I realised it wasn't a Montalbano story. It was liberated because I happened to look at it in connection with the new genre feature.

Il ‰gioco della mosca (1995) by Andrea Camilleri (Italy, 1925-2019)


A lively little collection of Sicilian anecdotes, each explaining or illustrating a particular proverb or figure of speech belonging to Camilleri's home village of Porto Empedocle. Some are obviously based on his own memories, some are local stories that have been passed down from generation to generation, and some are presumably straightforward fiction. Camilleri has fun with the quirks of Sicilian dialect, and in one or two stories also with the strange Sicilian/Neapolitan/American dialect of returned emigrants, where "motion" becomes musione instead of movimento.

Several of the stories involve Luigi Pirandello, who was also from from Porto Empedocle and related to Camilleri's grandmother. Camilleri recalls opening the door to him once, as a small boy, and being overawed by the academician robes the playwright was wearing (he had been opening a new school building in the village). Leonardo Sciascia — from a neighbouring village — is mentioned a few times as well.

The "game of the fly" in the title is a local pastime, where a group of boys lie on the sand ("for hours, if necessary"), each with a coin in front of his head: the winner is the first to have a fly land on his coin.

A nice little diversion, probably better read on a Sicilian beach than on a rainy day in Northern Europe...

Jun 29, 4:45pm

A bit of a catch up. I found your comments on Pennac’s books very interesting. ( >113 thorold: ). And I suppose I should read Trollope one of these days.

Jun 29, 5:36pm

While looking for something else, I chanced upon a book that bridges the Q2 and Q3 themes of Reading Globally, as well as giving me a chance to dip a toe into a language I haven't practiced much:

O gato malhado e a andorinha Sinhá: uma história de amor (1976; The swallow and the tom-cat) by Jorge Amado (Brazil, 1912-2001), illustrated by Carybé (Argentina, Brazil, 1911-1997)


Jorge Amado wrote this story in 1948 as a gift for his young son, João Jorge, but without any idea of publishing it. When João Jorge chanced upon the manuscript in 1976, he had the idea of making at least one proper copy, and asked his father's friend, the artist Carybé, to add some pictures — and before they knew what was happening the book had been published and was a big success.

It's an innocent-looking little fable about a doomed love affair between the stripy tom-cat and the swallow Sinhá, against the background of the changing seasons in a park, but it turns out to be a story that refuses to resolve itself into any neat moral, and which has some modernist leaps of narrative logic that must have been quite challenging for a one-year-old to follow, not to mention a frame-story that seems to be a parody of Vergil, whilst the animals in the park include a parrot-priest (with at least one illegitimate child) and a toad-literary-critic. Quite a bit for grown-ups to laugh at!

Jul 2, 12:43pm

That's it for Q2! The Q3 thread is now in place here: