30.12.13

2013: Around the Year in Twenty Books

I read sixty books this year.
One less than last year. Five less than my goal.
I must say I left at least a half dozen books unfinished. It does happen sometimes.

It matters not. As philosophers might say: it's not the quantity but the quality.
And there was much quality in what I leafed through on 2013 even though I didn't manage to review everything that I read including 5 books which made it into my top list. Apologies.

Anyway, let's cut it short. Hereby you can find the twenty books that meant something to me in this ending soon year.
By clicking on each title, you can read a review. The bold links lead to my reviews, the other five, to better reviews than the ones I could have written if I had been less lazy. Read some!

01. Kurt Vonnegut - Mother Night
Forget 'Slaughterhouse Five' and 'Cat's Cradle': this is the best novel by Vonnegut you will find. Humorous, witty, melancholy, thought-provoking. In two words: pitch perfect. 

02. Israel Joshua Singer - The Brothers Ashkenazi
An epic tale on the rise and fall of a Jewish captain of industry in the rambling city of Lodz between the end of the 19th century and the dawn of World War II. Masterful stuff. 

03. Stefan Zweig - Chess (also known as The Royal Game)
It takes the author only 96 pages to deliver the greatest novella on the game of chess and one of the most powerful and topical stories on Holocaust ever written.

04. Don Carpenter - Hard Rain Falling
An underrated novel handling hard topics such as urban violence, gambling, homosexuality and social division with a sharp and yet emotional touch. A literary equivalent of The Shawshank Redemption.  

05. John Williams - Stoner
How the only child of poor Missouri farmers can become an English Literature professor fail into the pursuit of love, happiness, career and yet pass away serene. Belated bestseller, but for a reason. 

06. Gregor von Rezzori - The Snows of Yesteryear
Chronicles from a vanished Central European world where multiculturalism was a matter of fact. Von Rezzori drew an exquisite family portrait with a richful historical background. 

07. Elias Canetti - The Tongue Set Free
Canetti portrays an engrossing account of his childhood and young adult years wandering with his family from Bulgaria to Manchester, Vienna, Zurich and Frankfurt in the early 20th century. 

08. Olga Grushin - The Dream Life of Sukhanov
An interesting novel on art in contemporary Russia beautified by a flourishing language. Reading about Sukhanov's intellectual struggle is like staring at an abstract painting getting its actual meaning.

09. Antal Szerb - The Pendragon Legend
A hidden jewel by a Hungarian intellectual who loved Britain to bits. A carefully-chiselled pastiche celebrating Gothic literature, British humour and poking fun at occultism in a sophisticated way.

10. Walter Tevis - The Man Who Fell to Earth
A shining and probably unique piece of introspective science fiction. How a humanoid alien visiting Earth to save us from nuclear wars is relentlessly shattered into pieces by solitude and alcoholism. 

11. Graham Greene - The Comedians
Nobody understood what was going on and what was bound to happen in Haiti as much as Greene did.   And he managed to write a suspenseful thriller as well with Papa Doc and Duvalier in the background.     

12. Anne Applebaum - Between East and West
An engaging travelogue through Eastern Europe in the early 1990s when the Iron Curtain got rusty. Applebaum takes you from Kaliningrad to Odessa jotting down notes with the keen eye of a reporter.

13. John Jeremiah Sullivan - Pulphead
Gems of pure Americanah pop and underground culture delivered by one of the most humorous pens west of the Atlantic Ocean. Where gonzo journalism meets David Sedaris. 

14. John Wyndham - The Day of The Triffids
Gargantuan walking plants stinging to death men and woman to banquet on their flesh thus driving humanity on the verge of extinction. All fueled by mass blindness and set in puritan England. Very funny indeed.

15. Isaac Bashevis Singer - Enemies
A love quadrangle set between Coney Island and the Bronx involving a sexy Holocaust survivor, a meek Polish peasant, and a resurrected wife torn a man apart. Polygamy is a tiring business. 

16. Ma Jian - Red Dust
A Chinese artist leaves Beijing behind to escape from a purge in the early 1980s. He will travel for 5 years discovering the sweet and sour sides of his homecountry and rediscover himself in the process.

17. Antal Szerb - Journey by Moonlight
Szerb strikes again with something completely different. At this time a newly-wed Hungarian groom has a personality crisis during his Italian honeymoon. Funny and profound at the same time.

18. Patrick Hamilton - Hangover Square
Hamilton puts himself in the shoes of a loser and good for nothing pining for a bitchy alcoholic woman. Love and hate walk hand in hand through the dark alleyways and public houses of pre-war London. 

19. Edmund de Waal - The Hare with the Amber Eyes
World famous ceramist turns into novelist to narrate the story of the Jewish branch of his family displaced by wars and misfortunes. On the wake of Canetti and von Rezzori but with a modern twist.

20. Julian Maclaren Ross - Of Love and Hunger
What do we know about the door-to-door vacum cleaner seller's feelings? Maclaren Ross filled that gap by telling the story of a suburban love affair in earlier times of job insecurity. Every little helped.

26.12.13

Walter Tevis - The Man Who Fell to Earth

Rating 7.6

As a non native English speaker, I discovered the adjective 'poignant' only six years ago thanks to a Canadian friend (thanks, Vicky).
She chose it to comment a photo I took involving a bowler hat hanging from a chair while an out of focus blonde girl in the background stood on her toes to take off a branch of autumn leaves from the frame of a mirror over a washbasin.
To be honest with you, the photo was nothing special. Perhaps my friend was ironic. Or maybe not.

What I know is that from that day on I have been struggling to find the right contest to use the same word.
The thing is that poignancy doesn't seem to apply to many things I see around me. Besides, the word 'poignant' doesn't come up very easily in conversation. 'Touching' and 'moving' are my natural choices.

Now my quest is over.
For The Man Who Fell to Earth is a poignant novel.  I wouldn't call it in any other way.

It's certainly a sad story, but there is a delicate almost intimate feeling around it and within it that makes poignancy at home. I've never watched the movie adaptation taken from this book and starring David Bowie, but I am somewhat sceptical on the ability of the Hollywood industry to create and deliver the same atmosphere of the book.

Walter Tevis was not your typical sci-fi writer and The Man Who Fell to Earth is not your typical work of science fiction either. No surprise that Tevis himself referred at his so labelled 'sci-fi novels' (this one and Mockingbird are his most famous works) as 'speculative fiction' rather than science fiction.

Given all that, you might not be surprised to find plenty of introspection here as well as recurring and symbolic references to paintings by Klee, Bruegel, Manet, and Van Gogh. Which is not the standard cup of tea for a sci-fi novelist.
At the same time, the 1980s and 1990s imagined by the author in 1963 are not that technologically advanced to leave you flabbergasted. No flying machines. No smell-o-vision cinemas. No androids dreaming of electring sheep. In fact, what happens is quite the opposite: there is no hint that humankind ever made it to the Moon (as it did only six years after this book got published) as well as that any significant leap forward took place either in mass production of goods or scientific research.

This is not a coincidence. The author wants the reader to focus on the main character.
And the main character might look like a man, but - as it happens - doesn't belong to the human race but comes from planet Anthea. That he 'fell' to Earth and brought with himself enough blueprints and chemical formulas to give humankind progress and make himself a billionaire in the process is all a part of a masterplan.
Now the problem for the Anthean visitor is that he starts feeling overtired and lonely. If he were a man, he would soon discover that money can't buy health, love and happiness. But he comes from Anthea, accumulates cash for a purpose and doesn't seek for disillusion thus going straight into alcoholism.

Walter Tevis was an expert on this. And I'm sure there's much of him in Mr Newton, the Anthean visitor. It's true that the author indulges way too much on what each character drinks, if they drink it straight, bitter or on the rocks and whether they stir their drink and,if so, for how long.
As a matter of fact, all the three main characters in the novel had, have or will have problem with the booze to the point that they often wish to get drunk. I cannot deny that this subplot is somehow simplistic: after all there's nothing new in alcohol seen as a painkiller, a nectar of wishful forgetting and - at the same time - a weapon of self destruction.

And yet Tevis' writing made me forgive him for all that first hand insistence on alcohol.
What ultimately wins here is a powerful story that is beautifully told and is still topical today. The uneasiness of Mr Newton, the Man who Fell to Earth, first in dealing with Earthlings and then with himself is non extraterrestrial, but very much a human feeling.

16.12.13

Frank Westerman - Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse

Rating 7.3

Frank Westerman is a Dutch agronomist who became a journalist and a foreign correspondent writing a bunch of non-fiction books on a wide range of subjects.

From the Soviet novelists' deeds to the massacres of the ex Yugoslavian conflict; from the chronicle of his ascent to the biblical Mount Ararat to an investigation on a natural disaster in Cameroon.
Passing through a children book he wrote with his daughter.

Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse is the - quite convoluted - English title of Dier, Bovendier, which literally translates into 'Animal Above Animal'. Pardon my Dutch.

So what is this animal above animal(s)?
Man, you'd say.
Aye, but not only: please add horse.

But not each and every horse you'd find around deserves to stand at the top of the animal hyerarchy. In fact, it's men themselves who took the right to make their own perfect horse, the king among horses, the  proud and elegant steed you don't only ride on but that you actually dance with.
This Superhorse is the Lipizzaner, a thoroughbred created over centuries of careful and painstaking crossbreeding financed and wanted by the Hapsburg Empire.



And flicking through the carefully preserved genealogical trees of these full-blooded steeds as well as visiting the riding stables among modern Austria, Slovenia, and Bosnia that Westerman wrote his book.
Now, this accomplishiment might sound rather boring to all those who don't really care about horses or have always been too scared to ride one. Well, fear not.

Mr Westerman found the key to make even horse crossbreeding an interesting process and is well documented and knowledgeable enough to put the saga of the Lipizzaners into a historical and a scientific frame. These steeds were one of the dearest treasures of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire and - as such - became a valuable war chest more than once in the last century.


The author here finds out where did these horses come from and where did they end up embarking on a very interesting - if slightly long winded - journey. It's mixing up the fortunes and misfortunes of the Lipizzaners with the ones of their creators, stableboys, looters and saviors that makes this story worth to be told even though Frank Westerman does take some detours which could have been left out.

The beautiful white and silver horses you can now see performing their peculiar steps, jumps and pirouettes in the Spanische Hofreiteschule in Vienna are the heirs of broodmares who survived many twists and turns in history and this book will let you appreciate all that.


4.12.13

John Jeremiah Sullivan - Pulphead

Rating 7.6

I had never read a single feature written by John Jeremiah Sullivan before buying Pulphead.

To be completely honest with you, despite Mr Sullivan being a regular contributor of excellent papers such as The Paris Review and The New York Times for a number of years, his name was unknown to me til a few months ago. My apologies for that, John Jeremiah.

It took a score of praising reviews for Pulphead I spotted here (thank you, Kinga) and there (thank you, Guardian and Independent) to make me aware of Mr Sullvan's existence as well as to convince me to purchase this book.
Contrary to my recent habits of scouring second hand bookstalls, car boot sales, and charity shops, I've even purchased a brand new paperback copy of Pulphead.

I had expectations, mind you.
Now, did I fulfil them?
Absolutely.

This collection of essays written by Mr Sullivan over the last years does include amazing stuff.
And yet, I expected something different from Pulphead.
Before starting to leaf through the very first essay (Upon This Rock about a weird Christian rock festival called Creation), I thought that John Jeremiah would have taken his reporting much more seriously than he actually did. Not that I was ready to stumble upon an emulator of David Remnick or Barbara Demick but - hey - after all we're talking about an American journalist in his 30s not of some dadaist essayist.

Well, Upon This Rock with its semi self-hatred style, its sharp sarcasm and its apparently casual - but actually quite straight to the point - observations opened my eyes. Here I had a heir of gonzo journalism writing in first person narrative and telling me the story of a not successful reporting from a proudly subjective point of view.
The problem is that I cannot stand the father of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. I tried to like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but eventually found it dull, lazy and messy.

Was Mr Sullivan going to take me along the same road Mr Thompson pointed at? Luckily not.

For the following essays of Pulphead kept their first person narrative and dealt quite a lot with their author personal experiences and point of view, but always managed to focus on something or someone in a quite effective -if particular - way. Must have been due to John Jeremiah not taking drugs or getting drunk during the writing process. Dunno.

In fact, something quite unexpected suddenly happened.
And it's this: David Sedaris passed by and said hello.

Let me clarify what I saw. I might be the only reader of Pulphead who experienced this epiphany, but Sullivan's writing gradually reminded me of Sedaris'.
Now the question is: can an essay on Michael Jackson or Axl Rose resembles a short story about, say, a bisexual neighbour wearing wigs and stalking grannies in a leafy American neighborhood? Yes, it can.

I mean, we're talking about Michael Jackson and Axl Rose. If you think about that they both belong(ed) - each in his own way - to the same Americana pop culture that Mr Sedaris is so fascinated about. Hadn't they become that successful in the music business, what else could Michael and Axl have done to earn their living? They could have worked as Santa's elves humming Xmas carols in a shopping mall somewhere between California and the Bible Belt from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve wearing coloured hosies to make their ends meet. (even though I reckon how Jacko would have preferred impersonating Santa himself for obvious reasons).

















John Jeremiah Sullivan understood all that.
And that's why he managed to bring Michael and Axl back to the neighborhood they belong(ed) to writing about seemingly minor episodes of their lives which - believe it or not - capture the essence of both guys, are entertaining and reveal something new on them that is in itself a major accomplishment.
Sullivan never met Jacko or Axl Rose in person but that doesn't matter.
He grew up listening to them, watching them on stage and reading gossip about them. He grew up playing the chords of 'Patience' and dancing to the smooth sexy riff of 'Billie Jean'. He treasured those trivial moments and they made the difference when he had to write about Michael and the Guns 'n Roses frontman.

I know there are fifteen essays in Pulphead and I only mentioned three so far. But it's when he writes about music and pop culture that Sullivan excels so I don't think I need to dig deeper into this book to convince you that it's worth reading it.

Let me just say that Upon This Rock, Michael and The Final Comeback of Axl Rose aside, there are at least a half dozen other amazing pieces of writing here with the uproarious Peyton's Place taking the crown. Pulphead might not be a five stars collection in its entirety, but it's a jolly good read nonetheless.

By the way, it turned out that you can read pretty much all of the Pulphead essays online: the one below is my top five, enjoy:

Peyton's Place
The Final Comeback of Axl Rose
American Grotesque
Hey, Mickey
Michael

16.11.13

Lars Saabye Christensen - Beatles

Rating 7.2

Reading 'Beatles' was another long walk I took down Memory Lane.
Bless Lars Saabye Christensen for setting another novel in that specific area of Oslo I remember so fondly!

The English edition I owe boasts that 'Beatles' is 'The International Bestseller' and in fact this is the book that made Mr Christensen famous in Norway and abroad.
Not to mention that a few months ago I spotted a hoodie eagerly leafing through this same book at a bus stop in the sleepy English town of Hereford (just don't ask me how I ended up there!). Actually, this single readerspotting would be enough to confirm that 'Beatles' did indeed become a bestseller. I guess the title helped, though.

Published in 1984, when its author was only 33, this novel has been translated into 16 languages, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and - surprise surprise! - is going to become a major Norwegian movie that will have its premiere on February 2014. Apparently the chief reason why it took so long to bring 'Beatles' onto the big screen is that the prerequisite to have the movie made was to ensure that the Fab Four songs would have been in it. And it tooks ages (and money) to get that.

Putting its International Bestseller reputation aside, as I wrote above, 'Beatles' is one of those books having a very personal meaning to me.
Just like it happened with 'The Half Brother' - the first novel by Christensen that I read - most of the action here is set in a two mile radius from Majorstua, one of the main intersections in West Oslo. Call me weird, but spotting toponyms such as Blindern, Bygdøy Allé, Solli Plass, Slemdalsveien, Chateau Neuf and Uranienborg Park made me actually happier than the countless references to The Beatles themselves.

With a plot taking place between 1965 and 1972 and with every chapter titled after a Beatles' song (plus a couple of McCartney and Lennon solo career singles), Christensen wrote a wistful and clever novel. The four protagonists - Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola - idolize the Fab Four to the point they identify themselves with them thus becoming Paul, John, George and Ringo.

I cannot read the name on the road sign on the photo, but this street looks like Kirkeveien in Oslo to me
Even though their own dream of making a band called The Snafus is perpetually postponed due to the lack of music instruments, the four Oslo kids grow up listening in almost religious awe to each and every Beatles LP and EP. As it happens, their tastes in music do evolve over the course of the years leading them to 'discover' Bob Dylan, The Doors, The Mothers of Invention, and the blues.
But the Beatles stay untouchable and every rumour implying that the Fab Four are on their way to split up is returned to sender by the boys in disbelief.

Aged only 14 at the beginning of the novel, Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola are 21 at its end. As you might wonder, not only their favourite records have changed but also their passions and interests switching from football, skiing and fishing to girls, alcohol, drugs and politics. That's why topics such as the Vietnam War, marijuana planting, the involvement in the ranks of the Young Socialists and the Norwegian European Communities membership referendum in 1972 take the floor.

The Fab Four never played in Oslo, but The Rolling Stones did it on June 24th 1965 getting a kingly welcome by the Norwegian fans and some pages on 'Beatles' as well. 
Gradually what had begun as the story of four easy and semi-idyllic childhoods turn into a gloomy and disillusioned tale with the odd funny moment. One by one all of the four boys fail at some stage of their young lives. Some of them fall deep into an abyss of either drug addiction, alcoholic stupour or nervous breakdown but somehow manage to come up for air, at least for a while. Just like The Beatles themselves, if you like.

And it's with this bleak atmosphere that the novel ends.
I know that Christensen wrote two sequels but it looks like they have not yet been translated into English. All in all I'm not entirely sure I'd like to read the sequels. On the one hand I prefer to leave Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola where they are, at the young age of 21. On the other hand I remember too well the disappointment I felt when reading 'The Closed Circle' by Jonathan Coe whose excellent 'The Rotters' Club' bears many a similitude with 'Beatles' (four teenagers, the 1960s turning into the 1970s, music, politics, romanticism fading into petting).

If these translations see the light, I hope that a better translator than Don Bartlett will be given the job. Nothing personal, Don, but it's the second time that your work doesn't convince me at all after what you did to 'Child Wonder' by Roy Jacobsen.

John, Paul, George and Ringo open up their umbrellas to keep their hairdos dry from the shower of criticism for the English translation of this novel
Tacky mistakes aside (in the English edition Kim comes back to Iceland and tells his crosswords maniac dad he was in a 'cold place, six letters' as the seven lettered 'Iceland' is spelled 'Island' - six letters - in Norwegian), Mr Bartlett here seems to enjoy leaving the reader in the dark. The examples of this sadistic pleasure of the translator are countless, but I will mention a couple which give you a general idea of what I mean.
- Page 503. The years is 1972. Kim gets a university loan. Don meekly translates: 'Four Ibsens and the basic grant'. Any idea of what that means? You need to Google 'Ibsen banknote 1970' to find out. Which is four 1,000 Norwegian crowns (kroner) banknotes with the face of Henrik Ibsen on them.
- Page 493. Kim is in Iceland visiting a former girlfriend of his. First-person narrative. All in a sudden in the middle of a dialogue, Don switches to the third-person narrative ('she told him').

And then there is the issue with Norwegian addresses and cultural references. To translate them or not to translate them? - Mr Bartlett might have pondered. The problem is that he didn't make his mind up.
So it happens that the magazine 'Nå' ('Now') and the newspaper 'Aftenposten' ('The Evening Post') keep their Norwegian names while the leftist newspaper 'Klassekampen' becomes 'Class Conflict' and the public television NRK becomes the 'Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation'. I wonder why.

Oslo in the 1960s was not exactly Swingin'
Another problem comes up with the translation of nouns. Now Norwegian (both Bokmål and Nynorsk) adds up suffixes so that, say, 'Storting' (the National Parliament) becomes 'det Stortinget'. But the name of the Parliament is Storting and not Storting-et. Now, go and tell this to Don Bartlett for whom it's 'the Stortinget'.

I am sorry, I am really sorry to spoil my review by taking the piss out of the translator but I believe that 'Beatles' would have deserved a better treatment

4.11.13

Israel Joshua Singer - The Brothers Ashkenazi

Rating 8.9


There once was a writer I ranked among the best ones I've ever read. This author bore the surname of Singer and won a Nobel Prize in Literature back in 1978.

Even though he was born in Poland and spent most of his life in the US, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in Yiddish, his mother tongue. He died at the impressive age of 88 and gained all the honours and the fame he deserved.

Now, our Isaac Bashevis had an elder brother - Israel Joshua - who was himself a writer. This I.J. Singer died of heart attack when he was only 50 year old in 1944 and his ouevre stood largely forgotten for the following five or six decades.
I didn't know anything about the eldest Singer before reading the following line at the opening of 'The Family Moskat', my favourite novel by I.B. Singer:

In memory of my late brother I.J. Singer, author of 'The Brothers Ashkenazi'.

For a number of years I thought that Israel Joshua could have merely been a source of inspiration for the younger and - so I assumed - more gifted Isaac Bashevis whose novels and short stories I kept on buying, reading and revering. I therefore regarded this mysterious I.J. Singer as an old fashioned and not that successful Yiddish novelist who helped his younger brother to sharpen up his own style and - perhaps - played a part in introducing him to the literary circles of first Warsaw and then New York.

Out of curiosity, I did try to look for Israel Joshua Singer's books in either the Italian or the English translation, but I was never able to find any of them in bookshops, libraries and second hand bookstalls. Due to this reason, I believed that the famous I.B. rather than the forgotten I.J. was the one who modernised the Yiddish literature by elevating it to a cosmopolitan status and by letting it get an international appeal. After all, the literary standards set by I.B. Singer were so high that my assumption was reasonable enough.

Well, I was wrong.

For now that I managed to put my hands and to stick my eyes on 'The Brothers Ashkenazi' I can tell you that this is it. And I mean it.
This is the novel that surpasses everything that Isaac Bashevis Singer has ever written and - what's more - it does it fourteen years earlier than I.B's masterpiece entitled 'The Family Moskat', a book that I still love to the bone.

So how exactly did Israel Joshua Singer made it?



Well, first and foremost by being more modern and less tied to the traditional Jewish canons and models than his younger brother.
 In fact, whereas I.B. Singer's writing his masterfully chiselled and engrossing but somehow reluctant to delve into topics such as politics and economics, I.J. Singer knew how to deal with that and therefore was a much more modern novelist than his younger brother.

The Nobel laureate Singer was truly mesmerizing in putting onto writing stories, myths, legends and jokes coming straight from an endless oral heritage. And yet, for all this ability or because of it, I.J. Singer is tightly bound to the past. Which is nothing bad and actually fantastic given the great stuff the younger Singer delivered.
But still, there's something missing in what Isaac Bashevis left us: insight. Which stands for the capacity to pinpoint and - to some extent - foresee some of the causes leading to the effects he wrote about. The dilemmas faced by I.B. Singer's characters - who are often torn between faith and secularism, superstition and progress, Europe and the US - are all too clear but, in a way, bred in their bones not influenced by the times and the society they live in.


At the contrary, Israel Joshua Singer (formerly a journalist) was very aware of the importance of politics and economics - intertwined with history and religion - in shaping the mentality of his characters.
The elder Singer dealt less with religion and traditions and more with a modern and sophisticated Jewish society caught at the zenith of its social, political and economical power before a resurgence in Russian pogroms and the Nazis persecution wiped it out from Europe.

I don't think it's a coincidence that I.B. Singer's first published novel ('Satan in Goray') is set in 17th century Poland and revolves around religion while I.J. Singer's debut ('Steel and Iron') is set in 20th century Russia and very political.
And it's interesting to read how Isaac Bashevis' writing career flourished only after his elder brother's death as if he eventually realised that Israel Joshua was no longer a literary model that he couldn't match. Thus, it happened that I.B's writer's block disappeared and he found his own voice or maybe the courage to put it on paper.

Anyway.
The beauty of 'The Brothers Ashkenazi' lies in its ambitious purpose. I.J. Singer here draws an excellent and ever-detailed picture of the city of Lodz between the end of the 19th century and the end of World War I. Among the forces at work in town to shape it as an industrial Sodom and Gomorrah there is a thriving Jewish community and a prosperous German enclave.


I've never been to Lodz, but I knew something about its sudden growth largely due to a now bygone textile industry. Believe me when I say that this excellent novel is for Lodz what 'The Tin Drum' is for Danzig-Gdansk or 'Buddenbrooks' is for Lubeck. This is a book with a multilayered in-depth plot worth of Tolstoy and a wide cast of interesting ever-developing characters and none of them is left behind by their author.

'The Brothers Ashkenazi' is a masterpiece and it took me weeks to attempt writing a review which could do any justice to the genius he wrote it. As you can see, I utterly failed. For all of my blabberings, I haven't been able to tell you much about the novel. But I can tell you one thing: it will grab you.

Ignore the graphic-novel style Will Eisneresque cover of the Other Press edition (portrayed above) and get into this treasure. It's 432 pages and you will beg for more.

26.10.13

John Edward Williams - Stoner

Rating 8.0

In one of the best written and most nailbiting scenes of 'Stoner', a committee of university professors has to decide whether the student they're examining can go ahead with his doctorate in English Literature or not. They have three options: fail, conditional pass and pass but, for a number of reasons, cannot find a mutual agreement.

Now that I'm done with this novel, I have no such doubts on how to rate it. For 'Stoner' and John Edward Wiliams did eventually deserve their pass. And yet, the author and this book of his took their time to make me clap at them.

On the one hand, the beginning of 'Stoner' was not that convincing. The parable of the poor farmer boy rescued by a dull existence tiling arid soils in Missouri by a lucky coincidence (and a foreseeing dad) which brought him to pursue a university education is never fully justified by Williams. The reasons, motivations and ultimately the ingenuity  which turn Stoner from a semi-illiterate country boy into a bookworm, a teacher and an academic are almost given for granted.

Imagine the hero of a novel by William Faulkner, John Steinbeck or Sherwood Anderson kicking off his half-broken and mud covered shoes to start teaching the sonnets of Milton, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson at the University of Missouri. It sounds rather unlikely, doesn't it? On the other hand, even though I cannot deny how the writing of Mr Williams is incredibly effective and - at times - astonishing in its beauty, the author relies way too much on the forms he likes the most.

Let's take the expression 'as if'; now I've always found it nice and sound, but John Edward Williams put it everywhere here. Understand, I'm not that picky to notice these sort of things when I'm reading a good book - and in fact the only time in which I fought a battle against the use and abuse of a certain expression was with Cormac McCarthy's innumerable 'okay' in 'The Road'. But, believe me, Mr Williams does love his 'as ifs' peppering any given page of this book with them.

Fine. Now you're probably wondering why I gave this novel such a good rating and a (non-conditional) pass upon all this criticism. Well, the reason is simple: 'Stoner' is an excellent novel. The way Williams writes about university life, gossiping and academic bitching is amazing. So far I thought that the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies was the best to deal with this business on the western shore of the Atlantic Ocean, but Williams here overcomes Davies' talent.
The fact that another undisputed master of fiction revolving around academics like the British author C.P. Snow did a lot to encourage the rediscovery of this semi-forgotten classic a few years ago may give you a hint on how good Williams is in this topic.

'Stoner' is a melancholy novel and I've little doubts it will leave you sad for a while.
However, it would be wrong to assume that William Stoner's life was a failure given his unhappy marriage, the estrangement from his daughter and lost chances of either an academic career or to leave a permanent mark into his field of studies. What Mr Williams makes clear here is that it is possible to savour, nurse and keep forever those brief moments of happiness and intellectual fulfilment that life is likely to bring us at some point.

Sure, William Stoner had little friends, taught to students who didn't remember much of him and met love being only too aware that he would have lost it soon. But he always kept his most important principles unspoiled never losing his moral integrity, human kindness and his eagerness to study, learn and spread culture. And I believe that the greatest power of this novel lies in this teaching which is never expressed by patronising the readers, but always by encouraging their thirst for knowledge as a shelter against let downs.

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

18.10.13

Heðin Brú - The Old Man and His Sons

Rating 6.1

I would have liked - would have really liked - to enjoy this one more than I did but, alas, it didn't happen.

This is an interesting if sparse insight into the remote Faroese community around seventy years ago and yet virtually timeless, save for a couple of mentions to the telephone.
I'm fascinated by the Faroe Islands and did look at this book with favourably biased eyes for a long while either waiting for something relevant to happen or for the plot to take a relished twist. Unfortunately, nothing like that ever happened and the book was soon over.
And, to be honest, without the Faroe Islands in the background I wouldn't save much of this novel.

Brú is not Laxness and I guess it was wrong of me to involuntarily set a comparison between the two given the cultural similitudes between Iceland and the Faroe and the period in which both authors lived.

I liked the odd tiny sparkle of dry Nordic humour here and there and appreciated the no-nonsense approach of the author to the story. But it's the story in itself that ultimately didn't catch my interest.
The fact is that I've found the beginning of the book much more powerful (and for those who cannot stand whale slaughtering, quite disturbing) than the rest of 'The Old Man and His Sons'.

Blame it on the translation, but it looked like all the following events happening to old Ketil, his family and his neighbors after the blessed (or cursed?) whale meat bonanza are somehow disjointed from one another and none of them got me.

It's a pity for I thought and believed that this could have been the sort of book I treasure and Heidin Brú himself one of those unrecognized authors that I revere.
However, to be fair 'The Old Man and His Sons' was a disappointment and I wouldn't do any justice to scores of books I read by rewarding it with more than a mere pass.

12.10.13

Kevin Barry - Dark Lies the Island

Rating 6.8

This is the second book by Kevin Barry that I bought, but it became the first one that I've actually read.
For the Gaelic-Nadsatesque reputation of 'City of Bohane' is still too intimidating to win over. Time will tell.

Thus, I decided to give Mr Barry a go starting with a selection of some of his most recent short stories, thanks to a fruitful and affordable harvest along the shelves of the Hay Cinema Bookshop.

There are 13 short stories in 'Dark Lies the Island' and five out of the first six are no short than excellent.

I know some of you don't like those reviewers comparing one novelist to others or making cocktail percentages out of literary influences, but I will annoy you nonetheless; my first impact with Kevin Barry brought to my mind Raymond Carver and - less surprisingly - Roddy Doyle.
Not that I'm the greatest fan of Raymond and Roddy, but to my mind Mr Barry managed to get the best features of both: Carver's straight prose finding beauty in a dull everyday's life and Doyle's sharp sense of humour and Irish cosmopolitan savoir faire.

As a bonus, Kevin Barry showed me that he knows how to draw with a wide palette.
Whereas the opening of 'Across the Rooftops' is poignant and melancholy in its adolescent stillness, the vibrant 'Wifey Redux' is a comic gem which the author quite obviously enjoyed writing.
From what I read here and there, it's the the third short story 'Fjord of Killary' the one that got more praise around (perhaps due to having been published on The New Yorker). Well, I liked this one enough and appreciated its self deprecating irony and cliffhanging mood, but my favourite in the lot lies elsewhere.
The Fjord of Killary does exist although Barry fictionalize it a bit

After the disappointing interlude of 'A Cruelty' which left me lukewarm and forced me to briefly reconsider my initial awe for Mr Barry, things got bettter again with 'A Beer Trip to Llandudno' the first short story in the collection set out of Ireland and reminiscent to me of certain works by supposedly minor British authors (Magnus Mills? John O'Farrell?).


Apparently 'A Beer Trip to Llandudno' won The Sunday Times Short Story Award on 2012. And Kevin Barry looks like Tom Waits (or it's just the hat?)

But it's with 'Ernestine and Kit' the sixth installment of the book that I've finally set my mind up and blessed the 3 quids I spent for the my second hand copy of 'Dark Lies the Island'. What Kevin Barry accomplished with the 12 pages of this short story is a truly amazing miniature of Irish on the road life on a serene Sunday afternoon. And the two affable and gossipy ladies of a certain age who take charge of the plot will twist it in unpredictable ways.

For the remaining seven stories don't shine.
Open up your umbrella, then.

Sure, Mr Barry read his Irvine Welsh and tried to pay his homage to him (see 'The Girls and The Dogs'), but the outcome is disappointing if not clumsy.
The vaguely ambitious 'The Mainland Campaign' fails in delivering a convincing portrait of a self-made romantic teenage bomber (and shows to some extent how Barry's knowledge of what music a post-Goth teenager might listen to is somewhat limited: Sisters of Mercy? Einsturzende Neubauten? Aw, come on! I don't buy this).

Both 'White Hitachi' and 'Wistful England' left me bored and quite puzzled on what actually Barry wanted to express apart from boredom and numbness. The penultimate short story 'Dark Lies the Island' didn't really justify its status as the title track of the whole collection. To be honest, it's not a bad story but then again it left me umoved, untouched and convinced me that Mr Barry had already shot all of his best bullets in the first round.

The oddly titled finale of 'Berlin Arkonaplatz - My Lesbian Summer' looks more like a rielaboration of a hypothetical 20 something Barry's own diary in Berlin (even though it doesn't look like he ever lived there) than like an actual short story. I'm weak and have this tendency to give unconditional love to everything set in Berlin, but Barry's effort is out of focus and the fictional (?) character of post-war refugee, post-raped, post-squatter, post-feminist, post-lesbian, semi-artistic photographer Silvija sounded too unnatural to me.

All things considered, I've no doubt that Kevin Barry is talented, brilliant and even - at times- fucken entertainin' (as he would put it in one of his short stories), but this island lying in the dark could have been more interesting to map had it had a good 80 square mil...ehm pages less.

5.10.13

Elias Canetti - The Torch in My Ear

Rating 7.7

Well, I've to confess that my expectations for The Torch in My Ear  were not that high upon having been struck by the mesmerizing (if slightly self-referential) beauty of the first volume of Canetti's autobiography, The Tongue Set Free.

This was essentially my problem as I do prefer memoirs dealing with childhood years and focusing on other characters than the protagonist himself.
In fact, this book took a little longer than the first one to catch my attention as I've found the first pages about young Elias in Frankfurt a bit rusty and not that compelling.

Yet, from then onwards The Torch in My Ear stopped taxing and took off.

The years Canetti spent in Vienna as a chemistry student pining for solitude up in the Austrian mountains were interesting enough, but what I did enjoyed were the pages on the months he spent in Berlin in the late 1920s.
This is a wonderfully exciting intellectual and hedonistic Berlin caught in between the writings of Robert Walser and Christopher Isherwood. Just imagine this: Canetti hadn't published anything yet at that time, but had the chance of being introduced to the likes of George Grosz, Bertolt Brecht and Isaac Babel.
And the way these these great men of letters behaved is described in such a perfect, hearty and sincere way by Canetti that I loved it.

As for the Viennese years of Canetti before and after Berlin, there is a good deal of Karl Kraus and a lot of entertaining insights on interesting characters. Those who read and remember Auto Da Fe will be delighted to recognize - in nuce - Fischerle the dwarf and Professor Kein himself in two of the people Canetti met while in Vienna.

Moreover, it's Canetti himself telling the reader from where did he get the inspiration for his two most important works. First, the author recounts how he got fascinated by crowds during a Viennese tumult in the 1920s thus planting the seed in his head of the future  and seminal Crowds and Power.
Then, Canetti explains the process which led him to the creation of Prof. Kein - the buchermenschen par excellence - and how he spent six years working on Auto Da Fe from a garret overlooking the Steinhof, the mighty Viennese mental hospital.

The final part of 'The Torch in My Ear introduces the reader to the fascinating character of the crippled in body but brilliant in mind Thomas Marek whom Elias Canetti got acquainted with.
If I have to find a flaw in the way Canetti arranges his narration here is that the author seems estranged with and not interested in his youngest brother (Nissim later to become Jacques) - whose name is not even mentioned once. However, as the other brother of Elias - Georges - is barely mentioned in The Tongue Set Free but gains more importance in this book, I've reasons to expect a better treatment for Nissim/Jacques in The Play of the Eyes.

All in all, I look forward to read the third and final installment of Canetti's memoirs with far better expectations than I thought. I should have known better!

26.9.13

Elias Canetti - The Tongue Set Free

Rating 7.9

The die has been cast upon reading Gregor von Rezzori's The Snow of Yesteryear.

Struck by the literary spell of that excellent specimen of Central European memoirs, I decided it was just the right time to go ahead along the same golden vein.
Thus, I pick up The Tongue Set Free. This is the first volume of Elias Canetti's monumental autobiography and, probably, the one I'm going to like the most. I will explain you why in a minute.

To a superficial reader, Canetti and von Rezzori have much in common. Both authors were born in now remote corners of Central-Eastern Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, came from multiethnic and polyglot families, spent their childhood years moving from one country to another due to the First World War events, drammatically lost a family member, graduated in Vienna, and eventually chose German as their first language in writing.

However, for all the things they had in common (including the decision to publish their compelling memoirs in the 1980s), there is much more separating these two superb authors and intellectuals than what could meet the eye.

First of all, Canetti was nine years older than von Rezzori and came from a Jewish family. Whereas von Rezzori - despite or because of the antisemitism of his father - was fascinated by Jews and their culture to the point of learing yiddish, Canetti was essentially a cosmopolitan secularist who never accepted the notion of sacrifice attached to the roots of Judaism (Abraham being ordered to kill Isaac) and Christianity (Jesus dying for the sake of humanity) alike.

Not that von Rezzori flirted with zealous bigotry at any stage of his life; he actually led a rather worldly life playing in movies together with Brigitte Bardot, Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau as well as moving to Tuscany where he became an art collector.
And yet, compared with Canetti, von Rezzori was certainly more inclined to religious symbolism and spirituality (he was the author of The Death of My Brother Abel while his last work - published posthumous - is entitled Cain) and a more prolific novelist.

Canetti's reputation as a successful author and the chief reason why he became a Nobel laureate is largely due to his essays even though it's his only novel, Auto-da-Fè, which is considered his masterpiece. Let's face it: none of the eight novels published by von Rezzori never reached the fame of that single one by Canetti.

One may say that it's the subject each author studied at Vienna University that influenced his own literary career. The flamboyant, dreamy von Rezzori graduated in art (after giving up medicine and architecture), thus ending up as a creator of works of fiction, while the more pragmatical and politically involved Canetti graduated in chemistry, thus becoming an essayist and an expert of social studies.

Now this distinction is true to some extent.
The funny thing is that if we take into consideration their memoirs/autobiographies the less analytical and more prolix of the two authors is Canetti, the chemist graduate and essayist. The ability to draw together his childhood and young adult memories in a convincing and precise narration belongs to von Rezzori, the playwright, novelist and art graduate.

Mind you, this doesn't mean that the first installment of Canetti's memoirs is not a wonderful accomplishment for most of The Tongue Set Free is indeed a masterpiece. I just think that von Rezzori was better in recapping the early events of his life to their core so that he led me to be more emotionally attached to those pages.
Canetti's early life was as fascinating and eventful as von Rezzori's - if not more - and the writing is equally beautiful, but my impression is that the author does take himself too seriously once he hit his teenager years. Let's call it the Nabokov Syndrome, if you like it.

This said, The Tongue Set Free is a must have and a must read for all those who relishes the golden vein of literary memoirs in a linguistically rich and multi-layered cultural environment and I loved it. I'm just slightly concerned for what is due to come in the second and third volume of this autobiography where Canetti is likely to focus on his own cultural struggle and Viennese milieu rather than giving voice to those who lived around him. I hope to be proved wrong, though!

20.9.13

Gregor von Rezzori - The Snows of Yesteryear

Rating 8.0

There are plenty of good books which you gulp down and forget. And then there are those rare excellent books which are made and meant to stay so that you choose to take your time to read them. The Snows of Yesteryear belongs to the latter.

I'm not an avid reader of self biographies, but I'm always glad to read one of them when the name of the writer justifies it which is to say when the author did something in literature. (ok, I reckon how Open by Andre Agassi doesn't quite belong here).

Now, Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov and Witold Gombrowicz's Polish Memories are both superb books. On the same subject, I've reasons to believe that I will enjoy those three self-biographic volumes by Canetti as soon as I have enough time to dig into them.

The thing is, Gregor von Rezzori did a better job than Nabokov and Gombrowicz in writing about his childhood. Mark my words.

One of the chief reasons why I liked The Snows of Yesteryear so much is that von Rezzori doesn't focus on himself as much as Nabokov (quite obviously) and Gombrowicz did. That and the fact that the author chose to select his memories very carefully thus giving the book a very distinctive frame were beautiful writing goes straight to the point and every unexpected detour does lead to a specific episode.

The Snows of Yesteryear is shaped by people, spiced up by places and smells of history.
Von Rezzori here baked a delicious madeleine which brings back to life the five most important characters of his childhood: his mother, father, sister, wet nurse and governess.

Whereas it's the opening poignant lines of the chapter dedicated to his sister which cannot left anyone untouched, I believe that von Rezzori is particularly masterful when writing about his 'savage' wet nurse, Cassandra, and on his teacher/governess, Mrs Strauss - also known as Bunchy.

There you have an oddity. The emotional detachment von Rezzori felt for his long bygone mother and father when he wrote this book as an elderly man is less noticeable when the author remembers about Cassandra and Bunchy. As a matter of fact these two women did have a deeper influence on the future novelist's early life than his parents who were either overworried about him or hopelessly distant.

At a first glance, Gregor von Rezzori certainly had a privileged childhood. Son of a rich man of distant Italian origins but who praised his Germanness and a proud servant of a collapsing Habsburg Empire, von Rezzori grew up in a world of country houses, city mansions and holidays in spa towns or by the Carinthian lakes. His mum was a fashionable woman ruling over a half dozen servants while his father was a dedicated hunter who enjoyed conversating in Latin (and, accidentally despised the Jews).

And yet, the von Rezzoris didn't fit the usual Belle Epoque picture of an uptown bourgeois Austro-Hungarian family giving parties, going to the opera, blaming the Versailles Treaty and - alas! - flirting with antisemitism.
Living in multicultural but troubled Bukovina, the family was forced to leave their home and belongings behind more than once during young Gregor's childhood. Suffice is to say that in the short span of thirty years, von Rezzori's hometown of Czernowitz passed from Austria to Romania to Soviet Union only to become an Ukrainian city back in 1991 under its current name of Chernivtsi.

The Snows of Yesteryear is much more than family history and an elderly novelist reminiscing on his childhood, it's a document of extraordinary importance to understand why a single town is known by six different names: Czernowitz, Chernivtsi, Chernovtsy, Cernauti, Czerniowce and Czernopol.

12.9.13

Antal Szerb - Journey by Moonlight

Rating 7.7

The first time I've heard about Antal Szerb was no more than two months ago. Since then, I managed to put my hands onto all the novels by Szerb translated into English, whose number equals to three.

I had the luck to make a good catch while visiting an Oxfam charity shop in lovely Bath, UK.
Bless the kind reader who donated Szerb's novels to Oxfam!

Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág), published in 1937, is widely considered as Szerb's masterpiece, but I must confess that I liked The Pendragon Legend - his first novel - a hint more.

Nevertheless, this novel came very close to the intellectual pleasure I felt while reading Szerb's previous work and is considered a milestone of Hungarian literature.

Antal Szerb had the rare talent to combine serious and farcical elements into his novels. What we have into this one is a post-wedding personality crisis of a Hungarian man - Mihaly - who is still tied to his adolescence, prone to womanising and cannot really cope with the social and moral responsabilities brought by adulthood.

From the very first sentence of the book, we know that something odd is going to happen to Mihaly. He's travelling through Italy on honeymoon with his newly-wed wife Erszi, a pretty but rather boring socialite whom he took away from her previous wealthy husband out of an extramarital fling.

Unlike his wife, it's the first time that Mihaly visits Italy and he's deeply fascinated by the country due to its glorious past rather than because of what he sees around him. To Mihaly, Italy means first and foremost Goethe, the Renaissance and the Ancient Romans' deeds in a dramatic and sentimental manner that brought to my mind Peter Camenzind by Herman Hesse.
But whereas Hesse really meant what he wrote writing his idyllic postcards from a non-existent Italy (with an involuntary comic effect) Szerb is able to cast some clever observations on Italy in the 1930s between the lines thus stressing out the absurdity of Mihaly's behaviour in being tied to a Grand Tour-shaped past.

Art, food, sensual pleasures and architecture aside, what Mihaly really pines for is wondering and wandering around the alleyways of Venice, the hills of Tuscany and the forests of Umbria preferably by night and in a state of self-indulged introspective stupor which leads him to take impulsive and absurd decisions.

Erszi is rather tolerant of her husband's recurring oddities but all the same she doesn't care a bit to catch him when Mihaly - unaware and aware at the same time - leaves her behind by boarding a wrong train. From this point on, Szerb focuses on Mihaly's identity crisis and the interesting people and the former acquaintances he meets through his Italian adventure. Some of these encounters happen by chance, some others not but all leave a mark in Mihaly's tormented story.

The author shows us a man who rebelled against a petty bourgeois life, but poor Mihaly doesn't quite know what led him to rebel and what he's inclined to pursuit and how. By writing so, Szerb tells us about the protagonist's personal defeat and evokes the topic of suicide which is a taboo much dear to his fellow Hungarians.

And yet, don't look at Journey by Moonlight as your dark and depressing novel spiralling downwards to the abyss of human nihilism as Szerb's peculiarity and ability is that he always knew how to cheer you up with a touch of lightness. Go and read yourselves.

2.9.13

Halldór Laxness - The Fish Can Sing

Rating 7.1

Reykjavik today is such an interesting place. Half spartan northern outpost, half ambitious capital of a scarcely populated but not diminutive country, the biggest (and some say only) town in Iceland welcomed your humble reviewer in style.

Bygone the hectic days of the financial and real estate bubble followed by the economic crisis that lead the local currency to lose a good deal of its value overnight and the national government to fall, Reykjavik is slowly recovering. Quite reluctantly, many Icelanders have to reckon that tourism turned out to be a damn good goldmine for the country.
According to the Visitor's Guide handed over by the Tourism Office in Ingolfstorg (a main square shaped by burger joints and marauded by skateboarders), 278,000 people visited Iceland in 2002, while 672,000 did it ten years later. Given the importance and the position of the capital - not to mention the proximity of Keflavik, the only international airport - I have reasons to believe that 9 out of 10 of these tourists passed through Reykjavik (sorry Akureyri folks!).

When I visited the place - at the end of the summer of 2013 - I couldn't help but finding the wonderful Harpa a shiny blackish convention centre cum opera house straight on the waterfront, slightly overdimensioned for a town the size of Reykjavik. Especially considering how, the capital of Iceland already had a Opera House. Ok, the building has just won the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award 2013 which is to say the Nobel Prize for Architecture and is labelled as 'Reykjavik Latest Landmark'. But still.
The Harpa in Reykjavik (2011) by Henning Larsen Architects
Personally, I've found the building bearing many a resemblance with the new Royal Library in Copenhagen (aka The Black Diamond) and the Utrecht University Library. But I'm no architect indeed.
Some Icelanders would have rather preferred, say, a new hospital for their capital - the one I saw was in a pretty bad shape - or those 164 million Euros to be invested elsewhere. Completed and open to cultural business on 2011, two years later the building does still look like the proverbial cathedral in the desert as no money were left for a development project including a 400-room hotel, luxury apartments, retail units, a car park and the new headquarters of an Icelandic bank (ironically). Which, your reviewer believes, it's a positive thing.
The Royal Library in Copenhagen (1999) by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects
One must not forget that Reykjavik is still administred by a comedian playing the mayor. And sometimes it shows. Formerly a misdiagnosed retarded child, a punk rocker, a cab driver and founder of the self proclaimed Best Party (Besti flokkurinn), Jon Gnarr was dismissed as 'not very entertaining' and a disgrace by all the locals I spoke with.
I mean, where else in the world you have the most popular weekly flea market in town being hosted in the ground floor of the National Customs House? Isn't that ironic? I mean not even the bohemian likes of former playwright and Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel could have made it better.
(for some additional awe-inspiring fun, just check the Icelandic phonebook which is one for all the country and has people listed on it alphabetically but by their first name).
The sober Mayor of Reykjavik (in pink) taking a walk out of the Town Hall. Watch out, Boris Johnson!
Anyways, the Reykjavik that you can find in The Fish Can Sing looks centuries away from the one I saw. And yet, merely one hundred years have passed by as Laxness set his novel at the beginning of 20th century. At that time, Reykjavik was the capital of a poor, remote and backwardish Danish province with none of the cultural, technological and environmental zest of contemporary Iceland.
The town itself gravitated around a couple of long streets, the church, a main square and the Danish Government building (formerly a prison). A bunch of shopkeepers with Danishised surnames and toying with Latin mottoes were the bourgeoisie. The price of jet-set commodities such as books and cream cakes was compared to the one of sheep and cows. Cottages still had turf-made roofs. And all that came from Copenhagen - save preachers - was fashionable.
Charming Reykjavik in the 1860s, well before Mr Gnarr and tourism took over
This is the Reykjavik were the orphan Alfgrimur Hansson (a surname meaning the son of Him and thus given to children with no parents) grows up fishing lumpfish with his adoptive 'granddad' Bjoern of Brekkukot, being chased by the plump daughter of the greatest shopkeeper in town and wearing the shoes of the opera singer Gardar Holm, the man who sung for the Pope and made Iceland known worldwide.

Holm is a masterfully built and elusive fictional character who is suddenly appearing and disappearing in town baffling the local authorities and bourgeoisie who always try to give him a kingly welcome. When reading about Holm and his idiosyncrasies, I thought that Laxness was partially talking about himself - just change the profession of singer with the one of writer - and that could be true. At the same time, this Gardar Holm who is reluctantly playing the ambassador of Iceland in Paris, Rome and New York is exactly what Bjork became for her country in the 1990s (and Sigur Ros in the 2000s): a celebrity detached by his/her homecountry due to their talent, but later pining for a return back home with world weary eyes hoping to be left in peace by the media.
A shot of Reykjavik's Hafnarstraeti in the 1910s. Trade was spreading up, but the Danish Crown still ruled over the island. 
To be honest, not that much happens in The Fish Can Sing, but for those who are interested in how people lived, thought - and what they dreamed - in Reykjavik one century ago this novel has a historic significance. The coming of age of the protagonist is not that compelling, but it works as well.

Laxness himself was a communist (but driving a Jaguar) who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 due to his portrayal of rural Iceland - go and read Independent People! - and hated any foreign influence in his homecountry. If he were still alive, I'm not sure the author would have liked the fact that all of his books in their English translation are easily avaialble in every bookstore, duty free shop and fuel station of Iceland today. Including The Atom Station where Laxness attacks the presence of a Nato base of Keflavik which is exactly what has recently been converted into the only international airport in Iceland.
Laxness himself indulging in my favourite pastime
The Fish Can Sing is not Laxness at his best. But this novel does have its charm, includes some decent Icelandic-like humour and I would go for it if you went or are planning to take the next flight to this magnificent and crazy country. Perhaps, if you are lucky, you could get a ticket to see Bjork or Gardar Holm performing at the Harpa seeking for the one note, the same note Alfgrimur Hansson was looking for.

20.8.13

Antal Szerb - The Pendragon Legend

Rating 7.8


'Tell me,' he asked, with some embarassment, as we strolled along: 'you're a bloody German, aren't you?'
'Oh, no. I'm Hungarian.'
'Hungarian?'
'Hungarian.'
'What's that? Is that a country? Or you are just having me on?'
'Not at all. On my word of honour, it is a country.'
'And where do you Hungarians live?'
'In Hungary. Between Austria, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia'.
'Come off it. Those places were made up by Shakespeare.'
And he roared with laughter. 

(from The Pendragon Legend, page 31)

I lived with Hungarians. I worked with Hungarians. I drank with Hungarians (and no less than Hungarian homemade palinka!). Boy, I even went punting with Hungarians. 

And yet, all that I recall from the fascinating Hungarian language is two words: hupikék törpikék.
Which sounds just lovely when you hear it and it's an excellent icebreaker speaking with your average 
beautiful Miss Polyglot, but, in fact, means 'Smurfs'. Now you know it: go and conquer parties!

How did I come across Antal Szerb? No idea. 
But what I know is that The Pendragon Legend' turned out to be a serendipity of a book. I was looking for a mere gothic novel in the wake of Poe and Machen and, this book - to some extent - is a gothic novel, but that's not all. There is much more here and Szerb managed to mix plenty of sweet and sour ingredients with an excellent final result.  

Now, how can I describe this?
There is this certain Young Frankenstein mood in The Pendragon Legend, so much that I expected  Frau Blücher to pop up, but dismissing this novel as a parody would be unjust. 
There is a quintessentially British sense of humour bringing P.G. Wodehouse and the early Evelyn Waugh in mind, but nonetheless Szerb pokes fun at Englishmen, Scots, Welshmen and Irishmen from the continental point of viewof Janos Batki, 'Doctor of Philosophy specialised in useless information'.

Batki is a Hungarian academic in London toying with his rather obcure research in 'English mystics of the Seventeenth century'. Having no impelling economic problems, he spends a good deal of his time in the Reading Room of the British Museum, under the very same dome that plays such an important role in New Grub Street by George Gissing and The British Museum is Falling Down by David Lodge.

Not so here. Batky will leave London and his vague studies at the British Museum behind in the pursuit of intellectual curiosity. An invitation from the distinguished Earl of Pendragon (a man 'with a remarkably handsome head' but charged of being 'mad has a hatter') will take the Hungarian Phd to Wales where a very funny and very creepy serie of events will happen.  

A scholar of Blake and Ibsen, Antal Szerb spent only one year of his life in the UK. And yet, in such a short time he was not only able to complete a once acclaimed World History of Literature, but also to grasp a lot about Britons and their idiosyncrasies. The Hungarian author was clearly fascinated by Britons and I bet he had great fun while writing The Pendragon Legend which was his first novel.



You can get that Szerb was witty and well-read as well as a man who loved to court women and being playfully seduced by a pretty face. Not your standard academic bookworm, then. 
Quite surprisingly to Janos Batki - Szerb alter ego here - courtship is not an intellectual pleasure, but actually quite the opposite as he firmly believes that beautiful women are not meant to be clever. Worse: beautiful women might be imprisoned to make the world a better place. As you can see, this is a novel where the main character does have some interesting opinions. 
But don't take Antal Szerb wrong, please. He was not a misogynist as the irresistible character of the rubenesque Lene Kretzsch - a modern and sexually liberated intellectual - can prove in this novel. 

Despite of its name The Pendragon Legend has nothing of Arthurian. This is an entertaining romp with some spooky moments, mysticism, cheeky saxophone interludes (if you know what I mean), brilliant dialogues and many a good and sharp observation. Much credit to Pushkin Press and the excellent translation by Len Rix for making this book available to an English reading audience.
As a self proclaimed bookworm I couldn't help but find this novel extremely engaging and a pleasure to read. True, the finale sort of disappointed my expectations, but what came before was brilliant enough. 

All things considered, it's high time I pay my first visit to Budapest.
A Martian Guide to Budapest by Antal Szerb might be of use.
(if you tell me how can I download that).

14.8.13

Penelope Fitzgerald - Offshore

Rating 6.8

Penelope, oh Penelope!

I'm not sure I know how to explain this...
But, please, let me try once for all.

Well...the thing is that I'm afraid there is something missing between us. Something which is left untold, unwritten, unread. Something that doesn't quite fit in the whole picture of a perfect writer-reader relationship.

My impression, Penelope, is that you keep most of your thoughts and emotions for yourself. There's a distance between you and me that I perceive and that I cannot accept.
It's like reading a beautifully written but ultimately cold love letter knowing that who wrote it doesn't want to let me know half of what she really feels. And I don't find it fair. I need to have my feelings involved in a romance to care about it.

Understand, I don't want to break up with you.
I do believe in this literary relationship and I wish to go ahead reading what you wrote. And yet, I think that I should try to stay on my own, far from your novels, for a little while.

Let's talk about Offshore.
When I read what you wrote, Penelope, I can't help but falling in awe with you. I mean, the idea of setting a story among the houseboat people of Battersea Reach in London in the 1960s is a stroke of genius.

I'm aware that you lived on a barge by the Thames yourself for some time and it's clear that you know the milieu you wrote about.
The way you describe the coming and going of the river tide and how it frames and shapes the daily and nightly life of the Battersea Reach community is masterful. On a funny note, the dirty fat cat either chasing or being chased by rats is a lovely touch.


But the characters, Penelope, your characters!
I mean, the human beings. You know, those bearers of words and feelings which are kind of important in a work of fiction despite of its sensational setting. Meat and bone hand in hand with hopes and fears.

How can you genuinely let a 7 year old kid talk like a grown-up?
And don't let me even start with the posh but gallant Viennese teenager stranded on a barge and loving every minute of his Swinging London experience.
Moreover, I've found the idea of calling each Battersea Reach settler with his/her own given name and - sometimes - with the one of their houseboat over the course of the entire novel rather confusing. So much that I've soon lost track of who was who. And whom did what. Which is a major problem in a 150 page book.

In my humble opinion, you could and should have written much more here in order to develop the whole cast of characters as they deserved. Novellas are not necessarily better than novels. And I feel that this is only one of the issues where you disagree with me.

Goodbye, then. Read you later.