‘Aller Liebe Anfang’ (‘The Start of Love’) by Judith Hermann (Review)

IMG_5347There have been several reviews of new(ish) German-language releases on the blog over the past few months.  There was Jenny Erpenbeck’s timely novel about refugees, Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone), and last week saw my look at Yoko Tawada’s Etüden im Schnee (Études in the Snow).  Today, I’m looking at another recent book, one by a writer I’ve covered several times before.  While the format (a novel) may be different, the tone is very familiar to anyone who tried her previous work.  The writing may be simple, but the emotions run rather deep…

In her most recent translation into English (Alice), Judith Hermann went to some rather dark places, and this continues in her latest German-language release Aller Liebe Anfang (The Start of Love).  The book is set on the suburban fringe of an unidentified provincial town, where Stella lives with her husband Jason and their young daughter Ava, balancing domestic duties with her part-time job as a carer for the elderly and disabled.

With Jason’s work as a house designer and builder taking him away for long stretches of time, Stella is left to fill her days as best she can, spending hours reading and making phone calls to her best friend Clara, whom life has taken a thousand miles away.  It’s a situation she’s grown used to, even if there’s a sense that her life has slowly come to a halt in the sleepy suburb.

These days of quiet dullness are interrupted, though, in an a rather unexpected way:

Drei Tage später ist Stella mittags alleine zu Hause und sie wäscht das Geschirr ab, als es an der Tür klingelt.
p.22 (Fischer Verlag, 2015)

Three days later, around noon, Stella is at home alone doing the washing up when the doorbell rings. *** (my translation)

She goes to answer the door, but something doesn’t feel right:

Sie will die Tür aufmachen, aber dann nimmt sie die Hand vorsichtig von der Klinke; auf der Straße vor dem Tor steht ein Mann, den sie nie zuvor gesehen hat. (p.22)

She is about to open the door, but then she carefully takes her hand away from the handle; on the street in front of the garden gate there’s a man she has never seen before. ***

When the stranger asks via intercom if she has time to talk to him, she declines, politely, and he walks away.  However, he soon comes back, and this first encounter is merely the start of a long, tortuous experience which will change Stella’s life.

If this sounds like the set up for a Hollywood thriller, rest assured that this is far from the case.  While there are elements of the woman alone facing a stalker in Aller Liebe Anfang, the book is less concerned with the danger Stella faces than with the effect the event has on her dull life.  With her husband away, Stella has nobody to turn to, a fact she only realises when she has something she really needs to get off her chest; despite being a working mother, she lives a rather solitary life, and Hermann captures this mixture of boredom and tranquility beautifully.

However, Stella isn’t the only one living like this, and the novel seems constructed to show how modern life can cause people to become isolated.  The suburban location, with scattered houses dotted between empty lots (and backing onto wasteland and small woods), is a far cry from the big city where Stella and Clara spent their youth.  Stella doesn’t really know her neighbours and traces the same path each day, cycling from home to her daughter’s kinder, then on to the house of one of her three clients, then back again, to put her daughter to bed before spending an evening watching darkness draw in…

Stella’s conversations with her clients add to this sense of world weariness.  Each of the three (an elderly lady, a man with multiple sclerosis and a woman with terminal cancer) have retreated into their own world, and the sleepy suburb seems an appropriate place for them to have been marooned in.  As the elderly lady remarks:

Nun, sagt Esther, das ist hier eine tote Ecke.  Eine tote Ecke der Welt.  Ich weiß gar nicht mehr, was mich hierher verschlagen hat, wie in herrgottsnamen ich mal hierhergekommen bin. (p.173)

Well, said Esther, this is a dead spot.  A dead spot of the world.  I can’t really remember what brought me here, why in God’s name I ever came here. ***

In a sense, the stranger’s intrusion into Stella’s life comes as a distraction from her usual routine – finally something which makes her reflect on the life she’s living.

Overall, Aller Liebe Anfang paints a bleak picture of modern life, showing how in a GLM5compartmentalised life communication can suffer and eventually disappear entirely.  It’s no coincidence that Stella’s husband is absent; even when he is at home, there’s a sense that the couple rarely talk, spending much of their time in their own worlds.  The more Stella does talk to other people (her boss, a neighbour she asks about the stalker), the more she realises how much she’s missing warmth and friendship in her life.

My review has glossed over the stalker aspect of the novel somewhat, mainly because for me it’s more of a catalyst for Stella to reflect on what’s happening in her life than the main feature of the novel, yet this strand of the story is also well developed.  Hermann introduces ‘Mister Pfister’ suddenly, before allowing him to gradually intrude more and more into Stella’s life.  Another reader could easily focus more on the psychological drama of the distant confrontation, one which eventually becomes more sinister, and the gradual build up to the inevitable confrontation is excellently handled.

Stark and simple, easy to read (in a way which reminds me of Peter Stamm), Aller Liebe Anfang is nonetheless a thought-provoking novel, one which should work well in English (no doubt Margot Bettauer Dembo is on the case, or will be soon).  It’s a story which looks at the dull nature of everyday life, but one which always has a glimmer of hope on the horizon:

Stella gießt die beiden Gläser voll.
Randvoll, sagt Esther, zögern Sie nicht.  Zögern Sie nie!  Das ganze Leben ist ein Abgrund, und je weinger Sie sich fürchten, je länger Sie hineinschauen, desto mehr haben Sie davon.

Stella fills both glasses.
To the brim, says Esther, don’t hesitate.  Never hesitate!  Life is one big abyss and the less afraid you are, the longer you look into it, the more you’ll get from it. ***

Carpe Diem?  Possibly.  The message of the novel might be less about seizing every moment, though, than realising that possibilities are there if you want them.  Nothing lasts forever, but that goes for the bad times just as much as the good…

‘Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge’ (‘The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge’) by Rainer Maria Rilke (Review)

RilkeRainer Maria Rilke, whom I first encountered back in 2011, is known more for his poetry, but he did have the odd foray into prose.  One of those books turned out to be one of the most famous works of German-language literature, a wrenching tale of angst and Weltschmerz – perfect for German Literature Month ;)

Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) is less a novel than a collection of thoughts from a young Germanic nobleman living in Paris.  Twenty-eight years old, a man with a slightly gloomy bent, our friend spends part of his time depicting what he sees around him in his new home, casting a pessimistic eye over the beautiful city:

“So, also hierher kommen die Leute, um zu leben, ich würde eher meinen es stürbe sich hier.”

“So, this is where people come to live, I’d have thought it was more suited to dying.” ***
(my translation)

A rather unsatisfied tourist, he’s not a man to see the best in his surroundings…

However, while the book starts with his reflections on Paris, the majority of the text is spent in the past.  Malte prefers to wallow in memories of his childhood, describing gothic mansions, dead relatives and ghosts strolling through the middle of dinner parties.  There’s also a beautiful woman, Abelone, who continually crops up in his reflections – could she be the reason for his mood and the departure from his homeland?  With Rilke, there are plenty of questions, but the answers are slightly more difficult to find.

Die Aufzeichnungen… is a mainstay of German literature, and it’s easy to see why as it has all the features of a classic.  The writing is excellent, laying out a range and depth of ideas and transporting the reader from turn-of-the-century Paris to provincial Germany decades earlier.  There’s also a ghost or two, always welcome in a classic novel – oh, and it’s quite a challenging read to boot ;)

Malte is a young man looking for himself in Paris, and this theme of identity pervades the work.  Having lost much of what makes up a man’s personality, though, he spends his time looking back to find himself.  This begins in his childhood with the discovery of antique clothes and costumes in a disused corner of his spacious home.  Unpacking dresses, greatcoats, scarves and costume masks, the boy is able to entertain himself for hours; until, that is, he sees himself in a mirror, at which point this game of altered identities takes a sinister twist.

This obsession with faces and identity follows Malte into adulthood, with Rilke frequently returning to the theme of faces as masks, sometimes literally:

“Die Frau erschrak und hob sich aus sich ab, zu schnell, zu heftig, so daß das gesicht in den zwei Händen bliebe.  Ich konnte es darin liegen sehen, seine hohle Form.”

“The woman started and came to herself, too quickly, too violently, so that her face stayed in her hands.  I could see it lying there, its hollow form.” ***

Returning to his childhood, the young man allows the reader to see where his fixation with faces may have started.  At one point, the young Malte takes a midnight stroll through the great halls of  a country house, looking for the portrait of  a girl he knows.  What he finds are rows upon rows of family likenesses, each with traits in common, many reminding him of his own features.

The fixation with his childhood becomes understandable when we realise that all this has disappeared.  Although Malte dreams of returning, his family is gone, the old houses sold to strangers – his roots have all been torn out:

“Und man hat niemand und nichts und fährt in der Welt herum mit einem Koffer und mit einer Bücherkiste und eigentlich ohne Neugierde.  Was für ein Leben ist das eigentlich: ohne Haus, ohne ererbte Dinge, ohne Hunde.  Hätte man doch wenigstens seine Erinnerungen.  Aber wer hat die?  Wäre die Kindheit da, sie ist wie vergraben.”

“And you have no-one and nothing and drift around the world with a suitcase and a box of books and in truth without any interest.  What kind of a life is that: no house, no inherited items, no dogs.  If only you had your memories, at least.  But who has those?  If only your childhood were here, it is as if it has been buried.” ***

Having run away to find himself, he merely realises he’s more lost than ever, causing his mental turmoil and focus on writing of the past.  And when I say mental turmoil, it soon becomes clear that it may actually be mental illness…

Die Aufzeichnungen… was published in 1910, and the style of the work is clearly modernist.  The GLM5more you read, the more the connections with writers like Joyce, Woolf and Proust become obvious (the Proustian comparisons are particularly apt in the detailed sections on Malte’s childhood).  However, there’s also a family resemblance to an earlier Germanic text, with Rilke’s young man an older, more subdued (and less melodramatic) version of Goethe’s young Werther.  In terms of the structure, the sketches, tangents and random stories we struggle to fit into Malte’s own story reminded me a little of Joyce (at which point I’d have to say that reading this on a Kindle is not the best of ideas – some sections stretch on forever with no apparent link to our depressive friend…).

Very much the work of a poet in prose, the book constantly shows Rilke’s eye for detail, along with a lack of regard for plot.  He’s able to conjure up smells, sounds and descriptions at will:

“Und ihre Gesichter waren voll von dem Licht, das aus den Schaubuden kam, und das Lachen quoll aus ihren Munden wie Eiter aus offenen Stellen.”

“And their faces were full of the light coming from the performance stalls, and laughter oozed from their mouths like pus from open wounds.”

Which is a rather unique simile…  In fact, my copyright-free Kindle edition (which, for once, includes sections highlighted by previous readers of the book) shows that there are choice quotes on most pages – I certainly felt spoilt for choice when selecting a few passages for my review.

In truth, Die Aufzeichnungen… is one of those books you don’t ‘get’ first time around (especially when you’re reading it unannotated in German).  I suspect that this is one to revisit, to reflect on, to discuss and read discussions about; perhaps in a few years’ time (with a proper edition), it’ll make slightly more sense.  Then again, it might be a book that requires a lifetime to really get to the bottom of.  As I said –  a classic ;)

‘Etüden im Schnee’ (‘Études in the Snow’) by Yoko Tawada (Review)

IMG_5311Many of you will remember the story of Knut the polar bear, who became a worldwide attraction after being abandoned by his mother at a Berlin zoo, but what does he have to do with German Literature Month?  Well, Yoko Tawada, a Japanese writer who also works in German, used him as inspiration for her most recent book (one you’ll get to see in English next year).  While that may sound a little unusual for literary fiction, there is a reason behind the choice of topic.  This is a novel which is about much more than cuddly creatures from the frozen north…

Etüden im Schnee (Études in the Snow) follows three generations of a family over three-hundred pages.  In the first section, a female Russian, a former circus performer turned writer, moves to West Berlin and then Canada, before leaving with her husband for the DDR.  Her daughter, who was born in Canada, eventually becomes a circus performer herself, achieving worldwide fame for her acts.  Finally, we have the grandson, a boy born after the fall of the Berlin wall, a migrant growing up far from his ancestral roots.

Three stories, then, with three very different voices, combining to produce a story of the difficulties of migration and dealing with racial differences.  Each section also looks at love and longing, and the pain of separation when life takes an unexpected turn.  Oh, yes, I almost forgot – and our friends are all polar bears…

My first experience of Tawada’s writing, Night Train with Suspects, was one of Tawada’s Japanese-language works, with a very Japanese feel to the style despite the largely European setting.  This one was originally written in German, though, and it’s a very different affair.  Taking the familiar tale of cuddly Knut in his Berlin zoo, Tawada uses it to explore a different theme.  She repositions the young polar bear as a third-generation immigrant, an animal with little knowledge of his roots.

The theme of immigration pervades the book.  In a slightly off-kilter world, speaking polar bears are fully accepted, yet are still obviously different to the more prevalent homo sapiens walking around the streets of Moscow or Berlin.  At times, the bears struggle to understand why the smaller, pinker creatures act as they do:

“Jeder aus meinem Publikum konnte selber auf zwei Beinen gehen oder auf drei Rädern fahren.  Dennoch starrten sie auf mich, als würde ein Wunder vorführen.  Und am Ende applaudierten sie mir großzügig.  Warum eigentlich?”
p.64 (konkursbuch, 2014)

“Each person in the crowd was capable of walking on two legs or riding on three wheels.  Nevertheless, they stared at me as if a miracle were taking place.  And at the end they gave me generous applause.  What for?” *** (My translation)

Knut is also reminded of differences on a daily basis.  On his leisurely walks around the zoo, he encounters various species of animals, yet his carer is quick to divide them into two groups: those he could ‘marry’ and those who are too different to get involved with…

This concept of partnerships extends even further, moving into the sensitive area of cross-cultral (or trans-species) relationships.  The most obvious of these is the bond between Knut and his carer, Matthias, a replacement for the mother the young bear never knew:

“Knut wuchs jeden Tag mehr, während der arme Matthias immer weiter schrumpfte.  Knut dachte plötzlich, die Milch käme vielleicht aus Matthias’ Körper, den er jeden Tag quallvoll zerquetschen müsse.  Je mehr Knut trank, desto kleiner und ausgetrockneter wurde Matthias.” (p.218)

“Knut grew bigger every day, while poor Matthias shrank more and more.  It suddenly occurred to Knut that the milk might be coming from Matthias’ body, from which he has to wring it painfully every day.  The more Knut drank, the smaller and more dried out Matthias became.” ***

However, there are also hints of hidden, more sexual, possibilities.  Knut becomes attracted to a man he meets at a dinner party (bear with me here…), with several lingering descriptions of the bear’s new friend.  This is more obvious, though, in the story of Knut’s mother, Toska, particularly in the form of her show-stopping kiss with her partner Barbara…

A further theme which links the three sections is politics, and the way minorities can be used for political gain.  The grandmother becomes an overnight sensation thanks to her autobiography, but is then forced to flee Russia to escape exile to Siberia (which she was actually looking forward to…).  Her daughter, Toska, just wants to be free to dance; however, in a socialist regime, her performances must be used to show the strength and success of the prevalent ideology.  Even Knut’s innocent childhood is used for political purposes, with his role as an ambassador for environmentalism sitting uneasily with the millions to be made from exploiting his image on t-shirts and caps.

Etüden im Schnee is an interesting book and slightly unusual on the whole.  The inspiration clearly comes from Knut’s tale, and this part actually stays fairly close to the real story.  Toska (or Tosca) and Lars were his parents, and he really was raised by a male zookeeper.  Of course, his first-person point-of-view is entirely invented (as far as I’m aware…).

This final section works nicely, and there are lots of fun observations here and elsewhere.  One that caught the eye was the grandmother’s scribbled sentence to show her German benefactors that she’s still writing:

“Die Ehen der Pinguine sind alle gleich, während jede Ehe der Eisären anders ist.” (p.74)

“All penguin marriages are alike, while every polar bear marriage is different.” ***

A nice Tolstoyan touch harking back to her Russian roots :)

While I enjoyed Knut’s story, I’d have to say, though, that I wasn’t as sure overall about the first GLM5two sections of the book.  The first part was rather simple, particularly in its writing style, and while I could see that it was a deliberate imitation of a first-generation migrant finding her voice in the new language, I was very happy to get to the change of voice.  Unfortunately, I found the second section to be the weakest of the three; the story slowed down here, leaving this reader struggling to retain an interest in the story.  These two tales build up to Knut’s story, but to be honest, I’m not sure they were necessary…

Etüden im Schnee is certainly an interesting idea, with much for the reader to think about (for one thing, there are obvious parallels with the writer’s own experiences as a migrant working in a new tongue), yet for me it didn’t really gel as a book.  Having said that, I suspect I’m being overly critical and that most readers will enjoy it a lot more – I can certainly see it doing well in English.  If you want to find out for yourself, you’ll need a little patience; Susan Bernofsky is on the case, with the book (probably) appearing in English in 2016.

This won’t be my favourite discovery for this year’s GLM, but I’ll certainly give Tawada another try at some point.  However, I’ll have to think long and hard about whether I’ll go for a German or Japanese title next time.  Still, one thing’s for sure – it’s always good to have choices ;)

A Few Thoughts and Some News…

Tony ReadingIt’s been almost seven years since I started Tony’s Reading List, and the blog (not to mention the blogger) is starting to feel its age.  This year has probably been the most intense one to date, with the strain starting to show in many places, which is why I’m beginning to consider some changes to what I do.  The first one is being announced today, namely that I won’t be running my usual January in Japan event this time around, at least not in the way it’s been organised thus far.  Let me (try to) explain why…

Over the past few years, as has become increasingly clear, the site has developed into a blog which focuses almost exclusively on literature in translation.  It has become a major review site, with more than 100 reviews of translated fiction each year, which, as it turns out, is a hell of a lot of work (you may not have realised that this isn’t actually my job…).  I’ve been fortunate enough to receive an increasing number of books from publishers over the past couple of years in particular, and this makes up a large part of my reading and reviewing.

However, as gratifying as that all is, it has had the effect of limiting me in my reading and reviewing a little, at times leaving me struggling to get around to older books, library copies and my own purchases.  When you add to that my slightly completist mentality and nature (and a tendency to go overboard), you can see how much time it takes to keep everything running smoothly.  I’m a regular participant in blog events such as German Literature Month, Women in Translation Month and the Shadow IFFP Panel; if you add January in Japan (and then take into account the fact that I feel compelled to spend the whole month on these events), that’s a fair chunk of the year gone already.

This year has also seen a new development as I’ve been lucky enough to have reviews and other pieces appear elsewhere.  My work has been published at Words Without Borders, Necessary Fiction, Shiny New Books and the European Literature Network (with more to come).  Most of them have been unpaid so far, but I am starting to get more offers, which, while gratifying, entails even more hard work.

What I’ve also noticed, in the midst of all this frantic writing (and by the end of October, I had already posted more than 140 times this year, ignoring my pieces for other publications), is that while the quantity is certainly there, the quality isn’t always what it might be.  One of the challenges I’ve set myself with my foray into commissioned reviews is to give myself more time to work on pieces and not just pump them out.  I do work hard on everything I take on, but there are times when I feel that some of the lower-profile books get slightly more cursory treatment than I’d like.  I haven’t quite reached the stage of phoning it in (for one thing, there’s nobody to phone it in to…), but I have been tempted a couple of times ;)

So, what does this mean?  Simply that I’ve been taking far too much on, and that it’s time to take stock and focus on the essentials.  From next year, I’m planning to accept (and ask for) fewer books, enabling me to read more of what I’m truly interested in (not just the latest book to appear in English).  This should also help with maintaining the quality of the reviews I do end up writing.  I also have to step back a little and decide what I want the blog to be, working out a healthy balance between reviews, external pieces and (of course) the rest of my life.  Quite apart from making time for my family (yep, I have one of those too…), there are areas connected with my work I’d like to pursue which I find hard to fit into my schedule because of my literary interests.

As I started the site in 2009 with the new year, a time when most online activity goes unnoticed, my bloggerversary usually passes quietly, so please consider this self-indulgent ramble as my annual moment of reflection on my blogging life, a ‘State of the Blog Address’, if you will.  After the best part of seven years of what has become easily the longest-running project or idea of my adult life, it’s time to decide what direction I want to continue in.  If I plan to go on with the blog (and I definitely do), it’s time to refocus, and simplify; otherwise, there’s a risk of simply throwing in the towel if it all becomes too hard.

So (and this is where we came in), I won’t be hosting January in Japan this year, although I will be reading some Japanese books and encouraging others to do so too.  There may well be a few other changes to the blog, and my blogging, in the near future too.  Whatever happens, though, rest assured that I’ll do my best to stay in touch – and keep reading and reviewing ;)

‘Der Untergeher’ (‘The Loser’) by Thomas Bernhard (Review)

IMG_5335One of the many writers I’ve discovered during my German Literature Month adventures is the original grumpy old man, Thomas Bernhard.  Over the past two years, I’ve tried books from his art-themed trilogy, and this year it only seemed fitting to finish off the third one.  So, it’s back to Austria we go for a holiday in the country, but if you’re expecting sunshine and relaxation, you’ll be sorely disappointed.  In Bernhard’s world, the weather, and the mood, rarely fail to disappoint…

Where Holzfällen (Woodcutters) looked at the theatre and Alte Meister (The Old Masters) gave us an insight into the world of art, Der Untergeher (The Loser) is focused on music, more specifically on the lives of concert pianists.  The novel is narrated by a middle-aged Austrian expatriate who has returned to his home country after several years in Madrid in order to attend the funeral of his old friend, Wertheimer.

Much of the novel, though, takes place in the narrator’s head, as he looks back three decades to an important time in the two men’s lives, a summer they spent improving their skills in the company of a certain Glenn Gould – who was to go on to become one of the most famous pianists in the world.  As our irascible friend dredges up his recollections of the period, the reader learns how what was one of the most significant experiences of their lives was actually merely the start of a long, slow decline.  You see, when you encounter genius, the only way from there is down…

Der Untergeher is another of Bernhard’s slow-moving books, with the ‘real’ action of the narrator’s visit to Wertheimer’s country retreat taking up the whole book (much of which occurs in the time it takes the owner of the guesthouse he wants to stay at to realise that he’s waiting at the counter…).  Of course, this is because most of the story happens in the narrator’s head in the form of memories, circular reminiscences of a style which will delight Bernhard fans but infuriate those with a passion for more linear texts.

The Glenn Gould of the book is a star in the making, and Bernhard describes his (invented) summer of music in Salzburg with the two Austrian pianists.  The two men immediately know just whom they have encountered, a man whose musical ambitions extend far beyond mere concert recitals and possible recording contracts:

“Der ideale Klavierspieler (er sagte niemals Pianist!) ist der, der Klavier sein will und ich sage mir ja auch jeden Tag, wenn ich aufwache, ich will der Steinway sein, nicht der Mensch, der auf dem Steinway spielt, der Steinway selbst will ich sein.”
p.118 (Suhrkamp, 2014)

“The ideal piano player (he never said pianist!) is one who wants to be the piano, and I tell myself every day when I wake up, I want to be the Steinway, not the one playing the Steinway, I want to be the Steinway itself.”
*** (my translation)

The drive of genius forces Gould ever onwards, and Bernhard’s narrator describes a man whose quest for perfection eventually destroys him.  When Gould dies of a stroke at his piano, the narrator suggests that this is death through mental exhaustion, with the maestro consumed by his music.

While Gould’s name makes the book stand out, in truth, he’s a minor character here, important mainly for the role he plays in the two friends’ lives.  Gould is the one who bestows the nickname of Der Untergeher on the hapless Wertheimer, and the Austrian, from the first moment he hears Gould play, is tormented by the knowledge he’ll never be as good as the Canadian.  From that chance encounter in Salzburg, he knows he is fated to fail in his quest to become a world-renowned artist.

What follows, then, is a portrait of a desperate man who, despite his wealth and talent, is doomed to misery, and an early grave.  Wertheimer is morose, self-destructive and incredibly selfish; one of the more important events in the second half of the book describes his efforts to keep his sister with him for ever, and her eventual flight to marry a Swiss businessman.  Bernhard paints the portrait of an egotist, with this image gradually transforming into that of a wealthy man with nothing to live for.

Interestingly (and I’m not sure how intentional this was), the narrator himself doesn’t come off GLM5entirely unscathed here.  The third member of the trio, another wealthy man with no need to work for a living, affects nonchalance regarding his own musical failure, able to abandon his career without regrets.  The more you read, however, the more you sense that he doth protest a little too much; despite his feeling of superiority over Werthheimer, he may be just as desperate as his departed friend was before his death…

Der Untergeher is typical Bernhard from the very start, with our angry friend unable to find a good word for anyone apart from Gould.  He delights in insulting artists, useless dilettantes the lot of them, and his country – Vienna gets the usual slating, of course, but Salzburg is in the firing line too:

“Drei Tage sei Glenn in den Zauber dieser Stadt vernarrt gewesen, dann habe er plötzlich gesehen, daß dieser Zauber, wie gesagt wird, ein fauler sei, daß diese Schönheit im Grunde abstoßend ist und die Menschen in dieser abstoßenden Schönheit gemein seien.” (p.19)

“For three days, Glenn was dazzled by the magic of the city, until he suddenly saw that this magic, as it is called, is rotten, that in truth this beauty is repellant, and the people in this repellant beauty are vulgar.” ***

When you add this bile to the usual mesmeric, circular motion of the story, what eventuates is a strangely comforting read, the enjoyment of the familiar (which is an idea Bernhard would not have approved of!).

In truth, though, while Der Untergeher is an enjoyable novel,  I never found it as impressive as the other two books in this loose trilogy.  It doesn’t hang together quite as well as I would have liked, with an abrupt (for Bernhard) change in pace and direction half-way through, making it all appear a little awkward.  Alte Meister and Holzfällen took Bernhard’s circular motion and ran with it for the entirety of the novel; this one runs out of energy somewhere along the line and needs to be pushed back on track…

Still, average Thomas Bernhard, if this is what it is, is still very good indeed, so it’s certainly not one to ignore (especially if you’ve read the other two in this ‘series’).  Having now heard all he has to say about the lives of artists, I’m looking forward to seeing who else he wants to insult.  Bernhard has an extensive back catalogue of work, meaning there’s plenty for me to look forward to in future – I’ll certainly be back for more from Austria’s Mr. Grumpy ;)

The Loser is available from Vintage Books, translated by Jack Dawson :)

‘Kassandra’ by Christa Wolf (Review)

IMG_5334While Christa Wolf isn’t averse to a trip back in time, as shown in her book Kein Ort. Nirgends (No Place on Earth), much of her work focuses on life in the former German Democratic Republic and the struggles of an artist living under a stifling regime.  So when we see her delving into Greek mythology, how exactly does that relate to life behind the Iron Curtain?  Read on, and you might just find out…

Kassandra (or Cassandra, in English) is a retelling of the Trojan War from the viewpoint of one of its minor characters.  Cassandra, daughter of Troy’s King Priam, is being taken back to Mycenae by the Greek victors along with many other prisoners, knowing her fate is to find her death once she has arrived on enemy shores.  This may not be much of a prediction given the circumstances, but coming from Cassandra, it’s more of a certainty; you see, the royal daughter is also a priestess with the gift of prophecy – if only people would believe her.

As she prepares to meet her death, Cassandra indulges herself in a long monologue in which she looks back at the ten-year war which led to the destruction of her home and the death of many of those she held dear.  While her beloved Aeneas has managed to escape, most of her brothers and sisters have perished, cut down by Achilles and his murderous Greeks.  Surprisingly, though, where The Iliad focuses on the half-crazed demigod and the battles outside the gates of Troy, Cassandra prefers to remember less noted events.  This is a story where we see the effects of war on those who never sought it in the first place…

I wasn’t really sure what to make of Kassandra when I first heard about the book’s plot, but having read it I can assure you that it’s a wonderful novel.  A basic knowledge of the events, and protagonists, of the Trojan War will certainly enhance your enjoyment of the novel, but it’s an entertaining story even without this knowledge, a clever retelling of an old story and a nuanced look at the role of women in war (or lack thereof).  The main character is a tragic one, gifted with insights which do her and her people no good at all.

Cassandra herself plays a much larger role in Wolf’s version of history than she does in the Homerian classics.  Granted the gift of prophecy by Apollo in a dream, she is never able to convince the Trojans of the accuracy of her predictions, which leads her to feel responsible for the events of the war:

“…Ich bin es gewesen, von allen seinen Kindern ich, die, wie der Vater meinte, unsre Stadt und ihn verraten hat.”
p.21 (Suhrkamp, 2013)

“…It was me, I of all his children who, as father claimed, betrayed him and our city.” *** (My translation)

In truth, this feeling of guilt has less to do with any real sense of responsibility for the war than with the growing estrangement from her father that develops over the course of the long years of conflict and siege.  Gradually, Cassandra withdraws from court, preferring to spend her time away from the continual (and futile) councils of war.

If we are to blame anyone for this, then one likely candidate would be Eumelos, one of King Priam’s advisors, who uses his position, and the king’s trust, to strengthen his position within the city, instigating a reign of terror and suspicion.  Eumelos manages to drive a wedge between Priam and his queen, Hecuba, surrounding the king with a sizeable guard (whose main purpose seems to be to isolate the ruler from those who might give him different advice).  Outside the palace, Troy becomes a police state, and many readers see this as an allegory for the Stasi’s stifling grip on public life in the former East Germany (one which led to the book being banned initially in the GDR).

However, the beauty of Kassandra is that the power struggles comprise only a small part of the GLM5story, with much of the action taking place outside the palace.  Marpessa, one of Cassandra’s slaves, becomes her guide to the wider world outside the castle walls, and she takes us on a journey through the streets of the city, up to the mountains and down amongst the secret caves.  The Trojan War was not a continuous siege, and life went on calmly for many Trojans during the frequent periods of truce; one of the more amusing aspects of the story is the possibility of seeing Agamemnon or Odysseus roaming the markets of Troy, bargaining for jewellery and greeting Cassandra politely…

Another major theme of the book (and, for many readers, perhaps, the central topic) is a feminist rereading of the Trojan War.  From the start, Wolf focuses on the women around Kassandra, particularly her mother Hecuba, whom Cassandra often sees as a more capable ruler than her father:

“Da wich die Amme zurück.  Es war ihr verboten, das sah ich, den Namen auszusprechen.  Sie wußte, ich wußte es auch, daß man Hekabe zu gehorchen hatte.  Schier unglaublich scheint es mir heute, was ihre Befehle bewirkten, kaum kann ich es mir ins Gedächtnis zurückrufen, daß ich einstmals heiß empört gegen diese Befehle aufbegehrte.” (p.28)

“At that the nurse recoiled.  She was forbidden, I could see, to speak the name.  She knew, just as well as I did, that Hecuba was to be obeyed.  It seems unbelievable today, the effect of her commands, I can scarcely recall the way I once rebelled, outraged, against these commands.” ***

A very different case is Cassandra’s sister Polyxena, a young woman whose fate seems destined from the start to be a sad one.  Later in the story, her beauty and goodwill will be used to snare Achilles – but at a great, tragic cost.

This look at the life of women also becomes more personal at times.  Early in the story, Cassandra is led to the caves outside the city, where women perform frenzied rites to a secret goddess.  The entrance to the main cave is compared to a part of the female anatomy, a hole leading into the belly of the earth, partially covered by vegetation hanging down across the entrance.  This prepares us for when Cassandra later becomes more explicit in talking about her sex life, musing about her regular liaisons with one of the priests:

“Wenn er länger nachts nicht zu mir kam, entbehrte ich ihn sehr.  Nicht ihn, ‘es’.  Und wenn er auf mir lag – Ainias, nur Ainias.  Das war selbstverständlich.” (p.41)

“Whenever he failed to visit me at night for a time, I missed him.  Not him, ‘it’.  And whenever he lay on top of me – Aeneas, only Aeneas.  That went without saying.” ***

Aeneas may be her soulmate, but that doesn’t stop her entertaining herself during his absences – now that’s something I don’t remember hearing about in The Iliad

For all the reasons above, and more, Kassandra is a wonderful book, probably my favourite of Wolf’s of the four I’ve read.  I’m not always a huge fan of alternate histories, or retellings of other writers’ stories, but this one is definitely ripe for rewriting, with multiple versions existing anyway.  Wolf does an excellent job of capturing the voice of the tragic fortune-teller, examining war, feminism and totalitarian states in the process.  There’s something for everyone here – you can take that as a recommendation to give it a try :)

‘Luftkrieg und Literatur’ (‘On the Natural History of Destruction’) by W.G. Sebald (Review)

IMG_5333While Basil Fawlty may have urged everyone not to mention the war, it’s fair to say that for many involved in the business of literature, his words fell on deaf ears.  As we find out every year in our shadow panel for the International Foreign Fiction Prize, even today, seventy years after the end of the conflict, World War Two continues to fascinate writers all over Europe, and beyond.  However, in Germany, the situation is a little different, at least that’s what W.G. Sebald claims – in the country which stood at the heart of these terrible events, he believes the war is something which has been more glossed over than taken to heart…

Luftkrieg und Literatur (On The Natural History of Destruction) is a work arising from a series of lectures Sebald held in Zürich on the subject of the bombardment of German cities during the Second World War, and the way German writers of the post-war generation handled, or rather failed to handle, the subject.  Sebald’s central theme is that of a deliberate neglect, whereby authors shied away from showing what life amongst the rubble of the devastated cities was really like, instead focusing on the positive story of the rebuilding and the unbreakable German spirit.

As Sebald rightly points out, the German air attacks on British cities (such as the London Blitz and the partial destruction of my hometown, Coventry, in November 1940) are well known and have been meticulously covered by many writers, yet the Allied attacks on German cities towards the end of the war, and their devastating consequences, have been relegated to the realm of memory.  Sebald, who from a young age was fascinated by the ruins he saw around him, blames this collective amnesia on the writers who refused to, or were unable to, address the problem in their work.

One reason for this, naturally, was that having started this game of aerial destruction, the Germans were in no position to complain about the unfairness of the attacks:

“Die Frage, ob und wie der von Gruppierungen innerhalb der Royal Air Force seit 1940 befürwortete und ab Februar 1942 unter Aufbietung eines ungeheuren Volumens personeller und wehrwirtschaftlicher Ressourcen in die Praxis umgesetzte Plan eines uneingeschränkten Bombenkriegs strategisch oder moralisch zu rechtfertigen war, ist in den Jahrzehnten nach 1945 in Deutschland, soviel ich weiß, nie Gegenstand einer öffentlichen Debatte geworden, vor allem wohl deshalb nicht, weil ein Volk, das Millionen von Menschen in Lagern ermordet und zu Tode geschunden hatte, von den Siegermächten unmöglich Auskunft verlangen konnte über die militärpolitische Logik, die die Zerstörung der deutschen Städte diktierte.”
p.21 (Fischer Verlag, 2013)

“The question whether and how the plan of an unlimited bombing campaign, approved by groups inside the RAF in 1940 and put into action in 1942 using an immense amount of human and economic resources, could be justified strategically or morally was never, as far as I am aware, the subject of a public debate in the decades after 1945 in Germany, above all for the reason that a nation which had murdered and worked to death millions of people in concentration camps simply had no possibility of demanding information from the victorious powers regarding the military and political logic which demanded the destruction of German cities.” *** (my translation)

While this was untenable at the time, Sebald himself examines the problem, questioning the morality, and the effectiveness in bringing the war towards a conclusion, of the carpet bombing of German cities (many of which were dubious targets).  One conclusion he reaches is that the steady bombing of civilian areas was actually the result of an unstoppable move towards the idea on the part of the British military forces; having built up the bombs and the capability to deploy them, it was almost easier to use the technology than to leave it idle.

The ethical question interests Sebald less, however, than the terrible effects of the raids.  As he goes deeper into the subject, he presents the reader with a sobering picture of the reality of the destruction unleashed upon cities like Hamburg and Dresden.  He describes exactly what happened during the raids, focusing on the effects of the incendiary bombs, thousands of smaller fires joining to form a hellish conflagration which incinerated people where they stood, sucking the oxygen from the air and lighting the city up to such an extent that it could be seen from tens of miles away.  Then we are shown the aftermath, with refugees fleeing across the country, mentally and physically scarred by the experience, traumatised women carrying the charred, mummified remains of a child in their suitcases…

And yet, Sebald claims, despite this widespread trauma and shared experience of the destruction, very little of this is depicted in the literature which appeared in the years immediately after.  The third part of the book contains his reflections after receiving feedback on the lectures from those who disagreed with his views, with the writer still convinced of his point:

“Vielmehr hat alles, was mir in Dutzenden von Zuschriften übermittelt wurde, mich in meiner Auffassung bestätigt, daß sich die Nachgeborenen, wenn sie sich einzig auf die Zeugenschaft der Schriftsteller verlassen wollten, kaum ein Bild machen könnten vom Verlauf, von den Ausmaßen, von der Natur und den Folgen der durch den Bombenkrieg über Deutschland gebrachten Katastrophe.” (p.75)

“On the contrary, everything communicated to me in all the post I received served to confirm my opinion that those born after the war, were they only to rely on the eye-witness account of writers, would barely be able to conjure up an image of the progress, of the nature and consequences of the catastrophe brought upon Germany by the bombing campaign.” ***

One of the few books which does deal with the topic is Heinrich Böll’s Der Engel Schwieg (The Silent Angel) – a novel which was only released more than forty years after it was originally written.  At the time, it was considered to be too depressing and dangerous for a recovering population to be exposed to.

After the three-part main course, we are treated to a dessert, one focusing on the specifics of GLM5Sebald’s general idea.  This final essay looks at German writer Alfred Andersch, and if Sebald was blunt in his general look at the failure of German writers to come to terms with the post-war environment, his treatment of Andersch’s legacy is, well, brutal.  He examines the writer’s work and finds him wanting on just about every level imaginable, pulling out the most embarrassing, clichéd, kitsch examples of Andersch’s writing and describing the characters in the novels as thinly disguised versions of the author.

Perhaps more damaging, though, is the investigation into the writer’s private life, particularly his marriage to (and later divorce from) a woman with Jewish origins.  Andersch was one of those German writers who practiced ‘inner emigration’ (remaining in Nazi Germany despite their opposition to the regime), yet Sebald questions this fact and suggests that the writer was prone to bending with the breeze, taking every opportunity to make life as comfortable as possible, even in his army career.  It’s a savage attack, one which would certainly make the casual reader think twice about picking up an Andersch novel for the first time.

There are several English-language versions around in Anthea Bell’s translation (with a couple of bonus essays by the look of things), and I’d certainly recommend it.  While the style is slightly plainer than in Sebald’s fiction, the book is still wonderfully written, full (as you can see from the quotations I’ve pulled from the book) of his meticulously constructed, seemingly never-ending sentences.  Whether you can completely trust his evaluation of post-war German literature is something people more qualified to discuss the subject than I am can decide amongst themselves.  However, even for a layman in the area, Luftkrieg und Literatur is a fascinating read.

‘Geschichte vom alten Kind’ (‘The Old Child’) by Jenny Erpenbeck (Review)

IMG_5332Welcome, one and all, to another month of German-language delights, thirty days of November which combine to make up German Literature Month :)  For the fifth year in a row, Lizzy and Caroline are hosting the event, with giveaways and readalongs galore, and I (as always) will be doing my best to share lots of my favourite books and writers with you all.  And speaking of favourite writers, today’s post kicks off the month with a book from a writer I’ve been spending a lot of time with this year – los geht’s!

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Geschichte vom alten Kind (The Old Child) was her first published work, a story which gets off to an intriguing start:

“Als man es gefunden hat, stand es des Nachts auf der Straße, mit einem leeren Eimer in der Hand, auf einer Geschäftsstraße, und hat nichts gesagt.  Als die Polizei es dann mitgenommen hat, ist es von Amts wegen gefragt worden, wie es heiße, wo es wohne, die Eltern wer, das Alter welches.  Vierzehn Jahre alt sei es, antwortete das Mädchen, aber seinen Namen wußte es nicht zu sagen, und auch nicht, wo es zu Hause war.”
p.7 (btb, 2001)

“When they found her, she was standing in the street at night with an empty bucket in her hand, on a shopping strip, and said nothing.  When the police then took her back to the station, she was formally asked what her name was, who her parents were, what her age was.  The girl replied that she was fourteen years old, but she couldn’t say what her name was, nor where she lived.” *** (my translation)

With no visible means of identification, the girl is soon dispatched to a children’s home where she is to spend most of the rest of the story, living with other children with no place to go.

The institution proves to be a place the girl feels at home in, but that’s not to say she fits in there.  She’s a figure that stands out, tall, ungainly and unlikeable, and her only talent seems to be that of blending in quietly, at times to the point of invisibility.  The more we see of her, the more we are forced to believe that there’s something not quite right about her – but what could it be…

In a big Erpenbeck year on the blog, this is the fifth of the writer’s books I’ve read.  After rereads of Heimsuchung (Visitation) and Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days), I tried her non-fiction work Dinge, die verschwinden (Things that are Disappearing) for Women in Translation Month before recently looking at her latest (untranslated) work, Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone).  While those books are the work of a more experienced, mature writer, Geschichte vom alten Kind is recognisably an Erpenbeck story, a novella where her idiosyncratic style is already evident.

The institute, the main setting of the book, is both school and home for the children.  Unlike the others, though, the girl wants to be there, and enjoys being locked away from the outside world.  She feels safe in the prison-like atmosphere, able to blend into the background in class, often simply overlooked by the teachers when they look around for someone to ask questions of.

While the teachers may ignore her presence, the students are rather more perceptive.  From the start, they’re unsure what to make of her, other than realising instinctively that there’s something strange about her:

“Bei genauerem Hinsehen gewinnt man den Eindruck, als häufe dieser Körper ohne jeden Sinn und Verstand alles, was in ihn hineingegeben wird, einfach an, als wolle er aus fehlgeleitetem Geiz nichts wieder herausrücken, als wäre dieser Körper eine einzige riesige blinde Anhäufung, ein Materiallager, zu dessen Verwertung aber die Gebrauchsanleitung fehlt, man hat den Eindruck, daß es eine verkommene Masse ist, zwar lebending, weil ja ein Körper zwangsläufig lebendig ist, aber eben doch auch irgendwie tot.” (pp.58/9)

“On closer inspection, you get the impression that her body, for no reason, simply piled up everything that was shoved into it, as if, from a misplaced sense of greed, it refused to let go of anything, as if this body was one gigantic, random pile, a storage space, one whose instruction manual was, however, missing, you got the impression it was an abandoned mass, living, yes, because bodies are necessarily alive, but still somehow dead.” ***

The tendency of children to take advantage of weaknesses leads them to test the girl’s patience, stealing her few belongings and pushing her over in the courtyard.  Eventually, though, they learn to appreciate her main quality – her almost supernatural capacity for ignorance and silence -, one which comes in very handy in the world of the playground.

Geschichte vom alten Kind is a very strange book, one where you’re never quite sure of the GLM5eventual goal.  The central figure is eerily inhuman, leaving the reader to wonder whether there’s much going on inside her head, or whether she’s even human.  For an Anglophone reader, the German actually exacerbates this effect, because with the word for girl (‘Mädchen’) being neuter in German, the pronoun used most often is ‘es’ (‘it).  While this is simply normal usage in German (and the English translation, as far as I can tell, uses ‘she’), to me it fitted nicely with the slightly impersonal feel to the description of the girl ;)

The writing is repetitive in places, deliberately so, reflecting the soothing routine of the institute and the girl’s desire for an ordered, peaceful existence.  Later in the piece, the language develops a little as the girl gradually becomes aware of her surroundings, and we move (occasionally) from the third-person point of view to a first-person viewpoint, allowing us, however briefly, to see what she sees, rather than what others see of her.  This all happens very slowly, and you do wonder whether we’ll find out the truth of her origins before the end of the (short) story.

As a book, it doesn’t match up to some of her other works, but it’s still a must read for Erpenbeck fans.  It shows some good writing and a hint of the control of atmosphere that marks her later work, the reader always sensing that the simple style belies the command over the story.  Better still for Anglophone readers, the English versions, translated by Susan Bernofsky, come with added extras.  The American version (from New Directions) contains several stories from her German collection Tand; the British edition (from Portobello Books) bundles Geschichte vom alten Kind with another novella, Wörterbuch (The Book of Words).  Sadly, that’s not the case in the original German, so I’ll have to track those other books down at a later date…

…for next year’s German Literature Month, perhaps ;)

October 2015 Wrap-Up

October saw me return to full-time work, which really should also have seen a reduction in my 373cb-img_3623reading and reviewing.  Of course, life never quite works out the way you plan, and instead I’ve found myself doing more than ever (with a few reviews elsewhere on the side).  If that wasn’t enough, next month is going to be even busier, as many of you will no doubt already be aware…

Still, let’s not get too carried away with self-pity – here are the usual stats to round off the month instead ;)

Total Books Read: 13
Year-to-Date: 136

New: 10
Rereads: 3

From the Shelves: 7
Review Copies: 5
From the Library: 1
On the Kindle: 3 (3 review copies)

Novels: 7
Novellas: 4
Short Stories: 1
Non-Fiction: 1

Non-English Language: 13 (4 German, 3 Indonesian, 2 Japanese, Spanish, Hungarian, French, Korean)
In Original Language: 4 (4 German)


Books reviewed in October were:

Emily’s vote would have been for her fairy-tale collection, but I’m overruling her as it’s a lovely little collection.  Maybe we’ll get another turkey next month…

Tony’s Recommendation for October is:
László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance

There were several excellent reads this month, with Modiano finally impressing (twice!), a trio of entertaining Indonesian works (of which Eka Kurniawan’s novel was the pick) and the final part of Miklós Bánffy’s wonderful Transylvanian Trilogy.  October’s pick of the month was an easy choice to make, though, with Krasznahorkai showing yet again why his name is beginning to creep higher and higher up the annual Nobel Prize betting lists :)

November will, of course, be about one thing, and one thing only – German-language literature.  It’s time for German Literature Month, and I’ll have a whole month of reviews on books originally written in the German language.  I hope you’ll be joining us on our Teutonic travels ;)

‘La Place de l’Étoile’ by Patrick Modiano (Review)

IMG_5331Having read a few of Patrick Modiano’s later works (all from this century), I thought it might be a good idea to go back and look at some of his earlier books to see if the style is different to the later writing.  Luckily, a recent release, The Occupation Trilogy, brings together three early works in English for the first time, allowing the casual Anglophone reader to get a glimpse of his initial forays into fiction, and having tried the first of the books, I can certainly recommend it.  In terms of style, though, there really is no comparison – the Modiano of the late sixties was a very different writer to that of recent years…

La Place de l’Étoile (translated by Frank Wynne, review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury) was Modiano’s first book, and it’s a most impressive debut.  The story is centred upon, and often told by, an impressive young man by the name of Raphäel Schlemilovitch, a French Jew who, having come into money, has to decide what to do with it.  As he wanders around France, meeting several dubious characters along the way, he reads the classics, dreams of writing his own book one day and (naturally) seduces and corrupts any attractive woman he can find.

If it sounds like an amusing caper, a picaresque work in the vein of Tom Jones, then you’re not far off the mark.  It’s often hard to take the story seriously, with Raphäel dreaming of places he’s visited and experiences he’s had, many of which happened before our dashing young hero was even born.  There’s a method to Modiano’s apparent madness, however, and the events of the books are designed less to show our young friend’s antics than to provoke a reaction from the French reader by poking a finger into some rather recent wounds…

The two Modiano works I began with, Little Jewel and Paris Nocturne, were sparse works, with the text pared back to a bare minimum, and while So You Don’t Get Lost… had a slightly more fleshed out plot, it was still recognisably by the same writer.  This cannot be said for La Place de l’Étoile, a story that delights in descriptive writing and exudes a joyous atmosphere, dragging the reader along on a hedonistic rampage through all that the French hold dear – all in a good cause, of course.

Raphäel himself is the heart of the novel, a wonderfully extravagant heir to a fortune, highly intelligent and irresistible to women.  His name and his looks mark him out as a Jew, and he doesn’t care a bit, determined to stamp his mark across the country and take revenge for any mistreatment his people have suffered through the ages:

“Blond hair, pink complexions, porcelain eyes get on my nerves.  Everything that radiates health and happiness turns my stomach.  Racist after my fashion.  Such prejudices are forgivable in a young consumptive Jew.”
p.79 (Bloomsbury, 2015)

In fact, Raphäel is the nightmare many French people believed in come true.  Six-foot-six, two hundred pounds, the face of a god, he’s a man able to destroy their sons (with his enormous intellect or his equally sizeable fists) and deflower their daughters, selling them off to slave traders when he’s done with them.

Of course, there’s a reason behind all this exaggeration.  As the story progresses, we spend more time in the past (if only in Schlemilovitch’s fantasies), learning of Gestapo collaborators and the torture of French Jews.  It appears that Modiano, through his larger-than-life creation, is forcing his countrymen to cast their minds back to a period they’d rather forget, making them remember how they abandoned their Jewish countrymen to the Germans.  Raphäel is the cartoon character they had built up in their minds to justify their behaviour – when the young Jew confronts them in all his twisted glory, they can only look away in shame…

This is the first translation into English of La Place de l’Étoile, and while it seems like a rather major omission, it’s not hard to see why it might not have been considered worth gambling on in the past.  For one thing, it can be a confusing read at times, with the story switching between the ‘present’ (the 1960s) and the war years (‘reality’ and Raphäel’s fantasies) at the drop of a hat:

“Since 1935, I have been the lover of Eva Braun.  Chancellor Hitler was always leaving her alone at the Berchtesgaden.  I immediately began to think how I might turn this situation to my advantage.
     I am skulking around the Berghof when I meet Eva for the first time.  The instant attraction is mutual.  Hitler comes to Obersalzberg once a month.  We get along very well.” (p.80)

When you add the frequent, random switches of the narratorial point of view (from first- to second- to third-person), it adds up to a novel conservative publishers might be wary of.

It’s also a very French book, and to get the most out of La Place de l’Étoile, you would preferably have an extensive knowledge of French literature.  While I picked up on some of the more obvious allusions:

“In Normandy, I will put the finishing touches to my sentimental education.” (p.64)

and had a quiet chuckle at Schlemilovitch’s dismissal of Voltaire (ironic seeing as his travels reminded me a little of Candide), I’m sure there were many more I didn’t even notice.  Modiano (or Raphäel) delights in discussions of French writers, Jewish or otherwise, and at times it feels as if the reader is being force-fed a diet of unknown names.  I’m sure the educated French reader would pick up a lot more from these – the stolid, Anglo-Saxon consumer might struggle a little more…

However, these flaws, if that’s what they are (hint – they aren’t), have nothing to do with the writer or his work, and La Place de l’Étoile would make a wonderful introduction to Modiano’s oeuvre, even if linguistically it appears far removed from his later books.  More importantly, despite all the clever allusions, it’s actually a very easy, fun read, with Wynne doing a great job of making the book race along elegantly like a sports car on the Côte d’Azur :)

With another two books (The Night Watch and Ring Roads) collected in this volume, I’ll be very interested to see how Modiano’s work develops.  I wonder if the writer will continue along this exuberant path for a while, or immediately begin to file away at the more superfluous elements of the writing.  Whatever the case, you can rest assured that I’ll be reporting back to you all as soon as I’ve worked out where he goes from here :)