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.