3 Audiobooks

Journal: 067

Coming over this Easter, from Perth to Melbourne with detours to a mine in Western Australia, a station in western NSW and a farm on Wilsons Prom., I listened to the three novels the old fashioned way, on CD. Why? Because it’s still easy to get them like that from the local library. But I will start my next Audible book ‘soon’. I did try a couple of Borrowbox e-audiobooks but there was a problem with the download.

I wouldn’t have written up these books at all, probably, but there is a problem with my load and I’m held over till tomorrow (Thurs) morning, so I’ve a few hours to kill.

Waiting for Tomorrow (2015) is a novella by Mauritian/French author Natacha Appanah, original title: En attendant demain, translator: Geoffrey Strachan.

This is the first of the three I listened to, so some of my memory cells have been overwritten by subsequent events. Briefly, I enjoyed it. And the author expresses some anger at the treatment of POC, including the use of the term ‘people of colour’, by, in particular, progressive Parisians.

The story moves around a lot, and is told from the POV of all the main characters. Today, Adam is to be released after 5 years and x days in jail. Anita, his wife of Mauritian descent, is waiting for him. Their daughter might be in a coma. Adele is dead. We go back to Adam and Anita meeting, marrying, moving back to Adam’s home town in the provinces (on the Atlantic coast). Adam an architect and mediocre painter; Anita, with a novel in her bottom drawer, getting piecework on the local newspaper. Adam’s annoyance at her ‘wasting her talents’.

Laura is born. Adele enters the story. Another Mauritian, undocumented, working in a bar and as a nanny. She meets Anita, begins living with Anita and Adam. There’s some drama. Adele dies. The ending is suspenseful and satisfying.

Snare (2015) is apparently #1 in the Reykjavik noir trilogy. I’m not sure what its title is in Icelandic but the translator was Quentin Bates. In an Afterword author Lilja Sigurdardottir says that Icelandic is spoken by only 400,000 people and it is important that the language be preserved, but also that it is a privilege to have her work translated into English.

The protagonist of Snare, Sonia, is a mule for drug smugglers, bringing cocaine into Iceland from Denmark and England. The plot is a little fanciful and the action sequences annoying (I’m sure they’re done well, but I don’t like action).

The charm of the novel is in the characterisation. Sonia has left her husband, but has inexplicably put her divorce into the hands of a lawyer friend of her husband’s who puts her into a settlement that gives her no income, no family home, and only one weekend a fortnight access to their son. Sonia is in an on again off again lesbian relationship with Agla, a senior manager in a failing bank, and a workmate of Sonia’s husband.

The quantity of drugs Sonia is expected to transport increases exponentially, a customs officer begins to notice her frequent, short international trips. the son is kidnapped when it looks like Sonia is refusing to continue smuggling. It all comes to a very exciting head. But the personal situations would have been just as interesting without the ‘noir’.

After two similarly aged female protagonists – similar enough that I began to confuse Sonia’s backstory with Anita’s – A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) was a complete change.

A G in M is Russian historical fiction written by an American, Amor Towles, apparently a literary author of some reputation. It is well researched with very many allusions to the great Russian authors. But. Towles is an American and his biases show. Not least in his choice of an ending which of course involves a complete repudiation of the Revolution and of communist society.

Count Alexander Rostov, and aren’t Americans fascinated by titles, is about 20 at the time of the October Revolution (1917). His lands are lost and he narrowly avoids execution only to be condemned to indefinite house arrest in the attics of Moscow’s principal hotel, the Metropol.

Over the course of 40 or 50 years he becomes head waiter in the hotel’s main restaurant and gains a foster daughter, who shares his 10 ft by 10 ft bedroom throughout all her teenage years despite all the other rooms in the attic being unoccupied.

It’s an interesting, if overlong story, but it’s Hist.Fic. and it’s not by a Russian, so I don’t see any point for anyone not a long distance truck driver with endless hours to fill, reading it.

Nada, Carmen Laforet

Four years ago next month Milly and I met up with our daughter, Gee and grandchildren in Paris and travelled with them to Avignon where Gee had taken a house for a week. Milly was to stay and help with the kids but my Eurail pass was burning a hole in my pocket so after one night I caught the local train out to the mainline station. Choices! I could go north to Lyon, Paris, Frankfurt; south and east to Marseilles, Nice, Monaco and on into Italy (as we indeed all did at the end of the week); or south and west to Spain – Barcelona and Madrid.

I had already decided on the last, and was reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in readiness. For some reason – I have no French and the ticket sellers had no English – I could only get a ticket to the Spanish border. I paid my €10, and at the border jumped off briefly to pay another €10 for a ticket to Barcelona (which is not how the system is meant to work, but no matter, I was happy).

A couple of more hours and I was there. And I did not want to be. There were thousands of people watching motorbike races in the plaza outside the station and thousands more queuing up all down the street to go into some exhibition or other. I walked around the motorcycle crowd to the ruins above them, back down again to the station and caught the next train to Madrid where I spent the night and a pleasant morning before making my way to Zaragoza and Huesca, on the edge of the country where Orwell saw action, and from there by local transport over the Pyrenees to Toulouse. Milly and I had hoped we might make a more successful visit to Barcelona this year, but it was not to be.

Orwell entered Spain, as I did, from the south of France, in 1936 to join the Trotskyite forces in the coalition fighting to save the left-leaning Second Spanish Republic from General Franco’s Fascist/Monarchist armed takeover. He found Barcelona in a state of Anarchist self-governance

It was a town in which the wealthy classes had ceased to exist… All this was queer and moving. There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State …

Nada (1945) is set in Barcelona, in 1940, after the Civil War and with the rest of Europe in the early stages of WW II. A year in the life of Andrea, an orphan country girl who comes up to the city to stay with her once prosperous upper middle class relatives, and attend university. Andrea is largely oblivious of the Civil War which must have been fought all round her as she was growing up, and only mentions it in the context of her two uncles’ – Roman and Juan – uncertain allegiance to the Republican side and their now uncertain tempers.

The family home, a third floor apartment in an once ‘good’ street, is now decrepit and dirty and housing too many people – Grandma, pious Aunt Angustias, Juan and his beautiful lower class wife, Gloria and their baby, the maid and a dog. Roman lives some levels above them in the attic. Food is scarce, the family is almost entirely without income. Juan is a talentless artist. Gloria who must spend hours modelling for him, sells his paintings for their scrap value, and goes down to her sisters’s in the slums to play cards for money, at which she is successful and for which Juan beats her mercilessly and repeatedly. Roman is a fine musician and composer which talents he has always been too lazy to profit by and instead brings in a small income from smuggling. Andrea, when she gains control of her student allowance from her aunt, spends it all at once in the first days of the month then starves through the remaining weeks, Her bird-thin Grandma leaves out portions of her own meals for her for when she gets home, and as she slowly makes friends at university they too conspire to keep her fed. Only the dog eats well.

This is one of those brilliant novels played out entirely in the head of the first person protagonist. Roman attempts to persuade Andrea that the only life of any importance is that of the apartment, where he is the centre of all disruption – attacking Angustias for her ‘secret’ lover whom her father had forbidden her to marry but who was now rich (and married to someone else); attacking Juan for bringing Gloria into the household; and Gloria for her attraction to him (Roman) when he rescued her during the war.

Juan put Gloria in the bath and without taking off her clothes ran the icy shower over her. He brutally held her head so that if she opened her mouth she couldn’t help swallowing water. Meanwhile, turning to us, he shouted:
“All of you back to bed! Nobody has any business here!”
But we didn’t move. My grandmother pleaded:
“For your baby’s sake, for your baby! Calm down Juanito!”

Slowly, Andrea, poor and unfashionably dressed, an outsider at University, is befriended by the beautiful Ena and by some of the arty boys, all of course from well-off families. They come and go in the story over the course of the year as Andrea pays them attention, or not, and as they do other stuff. Ena, is clearly fascinated by Roman, and we live with all Andrea’s reactions to that as the reasons for Ena’s fascination slowly become clear.

I was interested in the Catalan (separatist) side to this, but very little is said. It becomes apparent that the family mostly speak Castillian Spanish and Catalan only to working people. Apparently it was better for Laforet to gloss over the Catalan problem to evade Franco’s censors.

Thank you Pam/Travellin’ Penguin for sending me this. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Carmen Laforet, Nada, first pub.1945. translated by Edith Grossman. Edition read: Vintage 2008. 241pp

The Little Hotel, Christina Stead

AWW Gen 3 Week Part II 17-23 Jan, 2021

Christina Stead (1902-1983) is the greatest or second greatest Australian writer (depending how you rank Patrick White) of the inter-War and immediate post-War years. She was born in Sydney, went to London after school and one or two years of uni, and lived and wrote, often in poverty, in England, Europe and the USA, ignored and sometimes positively shunned in Australia , until the death of her husband, the Communist economist William Blake in 1968. She returned briefly to Australia then, on a fellowship to ANU, and permanently in 1974. (See my review of Chris Williams’ Christina Stead: A Life of Letters).

The Little Hotel (1973) is the stories of the proprietors and semi-permanent residents of a down-market hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva, in the late 1940s. As many of the residents are English it is relevant that England’s post-War Attlee Labour government had instituted a Socialist programme, with very high taxes on the well-off, austerity following the enormous expenditure on the War, and many important industries being nationalised. (The English/Australian novelist Neville Shute was just one of many who chose not to live there).

By the end of the War, Stead and Blake had been living in the USA for 9 or ten years, which proved the peak years for Stead as a novelist. But the rise of McCarthyism made it increasingly difficult for them to obtain script-writing jobs and at the end of 1946 they returned to Europe. Briefly to Belgium where Blake had hoped to get work, then London, back to Belgium, then in Oct. 1947 to –

Montreux at the Hôtel de Londres, a Swiss haven that became their home for a couple of years … she loved its charm, its quiet and its scenery, but not the English tourists whom she characterized so well in the novel, The Little Hotel.

Williams, 1989. (p. 172)

Knowing the way that Stead worked, with mss for a number of novels on the go at one time, it is probable that she began working on The Little Hotel in Montreux, while getting the last of her American books – A Little Tea, A Little Chat and The People with Dogs – ready for publication (I don’t think she began researching Cotters’ England until 1949). And then it finally surfaced when she needed a book, or felt the time was right. She had been making approaches to Australia for some time and maybe this book was gentle enough not to offend the delicate sensibilities of publishers Angus & Robertson, who had knocked her back repeatedly in the past.

I found The Little Hotel similar in its almost jaunty style and lack of theme to Stead’s first novel The Salzburg Tales, and nothing like my favourite Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck, with its flood of words, which just preceded it by date of setting, nor the gritty Cotters’ England, which followed. The narrator, ostensibly is Mme Bonnard who with her husband Roger, runs the hotel, but in fact the POV which starts out first person, more and more slips over seamlessly to third person when Mme Bonnard is not in the room.

I am very firm. It is the only way to manage these disorderly people. They are just like spoiled children. It’s funny, isn’t it? Here I am, only twenty-six, and I am running men and women of forty, fifty, sixty and seventy, like schoolchildren. The secret is simple. You must have your own rules. We have another simple secret. Our hotel, the Swiss-Touring, which is near the station and near the esplanade, is the cheapest in town for visitors … No one ever mentions this fact, among our guests; but it is the thing that keeps them from boiling over.

The English, all of them retired or semi-retired, are living cheaply In Switzerland while they work out where to go next, and how to get their capital out of England (I think currency movements were severely restricted to prevent a run on the Pound). But there are also European and American guests. The big worry, for all of them, is the Russians who might overrun Switzerland at any time and steal all the gold hidden in the mountains on which the Swiss Franc depended to maintain its value.

Guests and staff are relatively constant, though of course with some turnover, and we get to know a great many of them. At the centre was –

Mrs Trollope and her cousin Mr Wilkins, English people from the East, who had been with us for over a year and who occupied two adjoining rooms. .. next to Mrs Trollope was Madame Blaise, who had been with us the whole winter. Next to her was the large corner room… which Dr Blaise occupied every second weekend when he came over from Basel.

Mrs Trollope’s mother was Javanese, which doesn’t seem to matter in the hotel, but does in wider society, particularly in England. Her marriage settlement with her previous husband has left her independently wealthy. As Mr Wilkins gets more and more control over Mrs Trollope’s fortune he pays her less and less attention. And it is the unveiling and resolution of their relationship which holds the book together.

Madame Blaise is also the wealthy one in that relationship, and it becomes apparent that Dr Blaise’s hold over her is drugs. One guest is starving herself to death, another, with plenty of money, declares himself to be the Mayor of Brussels and is eventually locked up after wandering around the town naked. It’s not a long book, and there is enough going on to maintain interest (isn’t that faint praise!).

In case you’re wondering, after I have forced a lot of theory on you in discussions on Gen 3, Christina Stead was one of the great Modernists, she clearly studied James Joyce and would have met him and many other writers at Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co in Paris in the 1930s. She was a communist, though not formally a member of the Party; she could not possibly have stood the restrictions of Socialist Realism. Perhaps the closest she got to Social Realism was Cotter’s England in the 1950s, just as that period was coming to an end (It’s a long time since I read Seven Poor Men of Sydney).

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Christina Stead, The Little Hotel, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1973. 191pp

see also:
Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)
My review of Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (here)
ANZLitLovers’ Christina Stead page (here) which contains links to all our reviews.

The Farewell Party, Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera (1929-) is, I am sure, best known as the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being which I have read, but a long time ago. The reason the cover of the copy I own, which I bought somewhere, second-hand, a long time ago, doesn’t say “By the author of” etc is that The Farewell Party, published in French and English in 1976, but not, interestingly in the author’s native Czech, is Kundera’s fourth novel and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) is his sixth. As a side note, The Farewell Party is apparently now known as The Farewell Waltz.

The setting of The Farewell Party is a rural mountain spa in an unnamed country, presumably Czechoslovakia, and in time, between Dubcek’s Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution and the end of communism in 1989. Kundera went into exile in France in 1975, his Czechoslovak citizenship was revoked in 1979, and he was granted French citizenship in 1981.

So is the story a satire on communism, or indeed a criticism of Czechoslovakia? Maybe, but only very gently, and only if you read through the antics of Dr Skreta, the head of the spa, to a general criticism of Czech bureaucracy. The style of writing I find difficult to describe. It is spare and the author feels distant from his multiple pov protagonists. Reading Ivan Čapovski’s Miles Franklin last month I was reminded of Ana Kavan’s Ice – and that’s about all the ‘modern’ European reading I’ve done in the last few years – and The Farewell Party has the same feel, a sort of remoteness from the action.

During my searches I came across “[this] is Kundera’s most accessible novel”, not necessarily a recommendation, “a comedy in the form of a burlesque”, with apparently “multiple layers that explore themes of love, hatred, and fate”. I wouldn’t be a lit. student (again) for quids.

The story begins at a single point, nurse Ruzena is pregnant, and spirals out from there.

Ruzena had been born in the resort town, both of her parents still lived there, and she wondered whether she would ever manage to escape from that teeming nest of women.

Two months earlier she had slept with the trumpeter, Klima after he performed at the spa. Her workmates urge her to phone him. Klima takes the call during a rehearsal. He offers to ‘arrange’ things. “How do you mean ‘arranged’?” He was at a loss, not daring to call the thing by its real name ..

Ruzena is indignant. Klima is terrified. After years of womanizing this is the call he has always dreaded. His bandmates strategize. In the end they decide he should pretend to be in love with Ruzena. He will divorce his wife and Ruzena will terminate her pregnancy so they can start their lives together afresh. He organizes to drive back to the spa the next day …

… which is his wife’s birthday.

This beautiful lady was afraid of women, and saw them everywhere. She never missed a single one. She knew how to detect them from the tone of Klima’s voice when he greeted her at the door and even from the smell of his clothes.

So when he arrives home with a huge bunch of roses she understands immediately there’s a woman in the case. The damned bureaucrats have decided I’ll have to spend all day tomorrow at a stupid conference about the role of music in the building of socialism, he tells her. She goes along with him. They go to a movie, then home to bed. Finally, she is named: He lay next to Kamila. He knew that he loved her immensely. So ends the First Day.

Second Day. Klima arrives at the spa and goes straight to the rooms of Bartleff, a rich American undergoing the cure. They discuss women, they discuss Ruzena. They are sure that Dr Skreta will perform the abortion.

Dr Skreta has a wildly successful IVF practice. We are gradually made aware that the doctor is in all cases using his own semen. More and more women are having babies with Skreta’s prominent nose.

Days pass. The number of protagonists increases. Jakub, a dissident politician arrives with his ‘ward’. Skreta had some time ago given him a suicide pill in case he couldn’t stand imprisonment. Jakub is on his way to exile. His ‘ward’, Olga wishes to become his mistress.

Skreta persuades Klima to give a free performance with Skreta as his drummer.

Franta, a young local man is stalking Ruzena. It seems they had once been lovers. He believes they should now be married.

Franta was younger than Ruzena, and it was his misfortune to suffer from the inexperience of youth. When he grows up he will become aware of the transitory nature of the world and he will learn that no sooner does one woman disappear from the horizon than a galaxy of other women come into view.

Kamila comes up to the spa thinking to catch Klima out at his ‘free perfomance’, falls in with a film crew, and is almost seduced herself.

Somehow Jakub’s suicide pill gets mixed up with Ruzena’s sedatives.

Ok, perhaps it is a burlesque. A fun read and an interesting read.

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Milan Kundera, The Farewell Party, King Penguin, London, 1976. 184pp. Translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi.

The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, Ivan Čapovski

That is an odd painting, on the cover, based on a well-known photograph of Miles Franklin in nurses uniform, in Macedonia during WWI, but then this is an odd book. And shockingly for me, it is the book I said the other day that I had begun to write. My first lines (for the nonce) go:

In 2020 I am an old man and Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin is of my great grand parents’ generation, separated from now by gulfs of time, gender and geography. Yet this is me telling her story, imperfectly of course, but if you know my defects perhaps you will recognise the defects in my story telling, will maybe make a clearer picture of Stella/Miles, because of course we all think of her as Miles, than my own words, unmediated can convey.

What are my defects? Well first of all and maybe last, I am as I say an old man, an old white Australian man, and what do old men know of young women, very little. Very little when they were young men, and just as little when they’re old. Though daughters help, and wives and girlfriends. When they’re not grimacing, turning away. Listen to them. You’ll be surprised. I was. And what do old men know of old women? Nothing at all, they’re too busy thinking of young women. Old women pass them by.

As I read, I realise that I know more about MF than does the author, but that he, a Macedonian is of course much better placed to situate Franklin – whom he calls Miles throughout and not Stella as she was almost certainly known – in the complex, indeed Byzantine, geopolitics of Macedonia where she for six months, between July 1917 and Feb. 1918, served as a volunteer with Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Ostrovo.

Čapovski (b. 1936) has Franklin as a nurse, almost at the frontlines of the war, where a bewildering array of Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks and Macedonians are blood enemies from deep in their shared histories. But in fact the SWH unit, under the command of Australian Dr Mary De Garis, was well back from the conflict behind Serbian lines, and Franklin was an orderly, in Stores and assisting the matron (probably because she could type).

Franklin wrote about this period in the extended essay Ne Mari Ništa (It Matters Nothing): Six Months with the Serbs which I am yet to locate, and I wrote about her in Miles Franklin’s War for Anzac Day 2016. What Čapovski has read I can’t be sure. My concern in writing this fiction was how much research it would take. Čapovski seems to have a good if occasionally mistaken general knowledge of Franklin – and total familiarity with Macedonia’s geography and history – and has taken it from there.

You of course want to know how I reconcile my oft stated dislike of Historical Fiction, of WWI Hist.Fic in particular, and of authors with protagonists of the opposite gender, with my intention of writing just such a work. I make no excuses. My model was to have been Brian Matthews’ marvellous Louisa with all my defects, biases and failures of research out in the open for you all to see.

You might also ask how I can bear the errors in Čapovski’s account of Franklin’s life. The answer, I think, is that this Miles Franklin is a fiction just as the Sybylla’s were; just as Justine is in Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia (both cases in which the authors gave up writing because they were so often conflated with their protagonists). Čapovski imagines a life for this 38 year old Australian single woman, and the things he gets ‘wrong’ – Franklin’s home being Talbingo, Linda (MF’s sister) dying before MF leaves for America, Franklin working on My Career Goes Bung (in fact the ms was lost until well after the War), and on Up the Country (not started until 1927) – these things don’t impinge on the story. Even Franklin being a frontline nurse instead of a behind the lines orderly is not particularly important. There were a number of Australian women in different roles at Ostrovo and any one of them could have been the protagonist. I’m just pleased that Macedonia remembers that ‘we’ were there.

The author discusses his decision to build his novel around Miles Franklin in an Afterword which I have chosen not to read until after this review is posted.

So what’s the story? In fact, is this a story, or just a cross-section of lives briefly intersecting near the end of the War? More the latter. Franklin arrives at the camp, makes friends with Lina a local girl whose fiancee has been conscripted not once but twice by the various powers vying to incorporate Macedonia. Two men, a poet and a photographer*, once friends, find themselves attached to opposing armies, save each other from death, move on, run into each other again, talk, shoot, end up in adjacent hospital beds. Macedonian villagers are enslaved by the Bulgarians in 1916, by the French and the Serbs in 1917. One young man kills a French officer in a futile attempt to protect his wife and baby, runs, hides, seeks refuge in the hospital at Ostrovo. The War goes on. In the Balkans the war is always going on. MF rests in the summer sun

What did poet EJ Brady who was in love with her, say to her back in 1904? To write about love .. To write about love. Love is like the snake: both conceal venom… She has never had anything against men. She has simply questioned their dominance.

I might have written an interesting novel about Miles Franklin aged 20-40 as I intended, but Čapovski does MF in Macedonia better than I could ever have hoped, because Macedonia and its history is his home territory. Don’t read this novel to learn more about Miles Franklin, but gloss over the minor errors in her back story, and read a fascinating account of a woman writer from the other side of the world observing, swept up in, one more iteration of the ancient conflicts which men have inflicted on each other in these mountains since before recorded history.

 

Ivan Čapovski, The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, Cadmus Press, Melbourne, 2020. 280pp. Published in Macedonia, 2004. Translated by Paul Filev. Cover art by Aleksandar Stankoski. (website).

Further reading:
Miles Franklin page (here)
Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)
Dianne Bell, Miles Franklin and the Serbs still matter (here)
Australians Working with Scottish Women’s Hospitals, Debbie Robson
The Scottish Women’s Hospitals and Australians talk, Debbie Robson


*The photographer, Jasen Krstanov, says that he is inspired by the Australian writer and war correspondent AG Hales (1860-1936)

Normal People, Sally Rooney

normal-people-paperback.jpg

Normal People (2018) is one of those books that ‘everyone’ has read and reviewed. So of course I am late to yet another party, a party I wouldn’t have attended at all except I picked up a copy for $1 at the Red Cross where Milly volunteers. I started reading, and I was hooked.

January 2011 Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell. She’s still wearing her school uniform, but she’s taken off the sweater, so it’s just the blouse and skirt, and she has no shoes on, only tights
Oh, hey, he says.
Come on in.

So from the start, which this is, we see how Rooney means to go on. The principal characters are Marianne and Connell, classmates in the final year of high school – in a smallish town in western Ireland, hillbilly country if you’re from Dublin, though this doesn’t come up for 2 or 3 chapters – outsiders, in different ways, but clearly the two top students. A few lines down we meet Lorraine, Connell’s mother, who cleans for Marianne’s mother a couple of days a week. We see the detail, in this case exactly what items of clothing Marianne is and isn’t wearing, which Kimbofo in her review found obtrusive but which I thought allowed us time to pay proper attention to the action; and of course the absence of quotation marks which I might not have noticed at all except Kim pointed it out. The writing is all in the third person, alternatively from Connell’s POV then from Marianne’s.

The starting position is that Marianne is a bit weird, holds herself aloof from her classmates, doesn’t wear make up, has never been with a boy. While Connell is ‘normal’, captains the school soccer team, hangs with his mates Eric and Rob, has had sex (which he didn’t enjoy), gets hit on by Miss Neary their Economics teacher. Connell, as we have seen, is often at Marianne’s, to drive his mother home, and although they never speak at school, they are friends at least in that small space.

Soon, and almost without preamble they are sleeping together.

The following year when they go up to Trinity College Dublin, Marianne is the ‘normal’ one, outgoing and popular while Connell subsides into loneliness.

Then, a few years later Connell is in a normal relationship with a Helen, a med student, while Marianne is in increasingly abusive relationships with her friend Peggy and Jamie a chinless merchant banker type.

All through, they struggle to maintain their special friendship.

My feeling as a guy reading, and loving, this story was that this was Marianne’s story. Connell, not always but often, felt like a cardboard cutout around which Marianne rose and fell as her backstory was slowly unveiled. I know it’s expected of me to say stuff like this, but Rooney, a woman, is much more perceptive about girls than she is about boys. She knows viscerally the social hierarchy of popularity of girls at schools, but fails to understand the similar hierarchy for boys which flows directly from football, and which the top boys carry forward with them into their real life, as confidence, and often entitlement. A confidence which Connell at Trinity strangely lacks, even allowing for for his rural, working class background.

From the point of that first sex we are rooting, to coin a phrase, for Marianne and Connell to form a permanent relationship. At times they come close then Connell makes a mis-step and Marianne is on her own again. During those intense final months of high school Connell says he loves Marianne but takes the popular girl, Rachel to the end of year Debs. They don’t see each other again until well into term 1 at Trinity. And hook up and break up. And so it goes.

It seems they pretend to each other that they are friends with benefits, and it mostly seems to us that Connell is never sure of Marianne’s feelings for him, and that Marianne would commit if only Connell would.

But all through there is a brittleness to Marianne which we are given clues about, her bullying by her older brother, what she tells Connell about her late father, and then, towards the end of their undergraduate years, her unsuitable relationships, with Jamie who Connell finally sees off, and then Lukas who ..

tells her bad things about herself. It’s hard to know whether Marianne likes to hear those things; she desires to hear them, but she’s conscious by now of being able to desire in some sense what she does not want. The quality of gratification is thin and hard, arriving too quickly and then leaving her sick and shivery. You’re worthless, Lukas likes to tell her. You’re nothing. And she feels like nothing, an absence to be forcibly filled in.

 To put it bluntly, when Marianne is not with Connell she goes out with sadists.

The resolution of this problem, and I think it is resolved, takes all the second half of this fascinating, deeply satisfying and beautifully well written book. I’ve read it twice now, to get this review done, and still I can only hint at how deep it goes in laying out and developing Marianne’s character in particular, but also Connell’s. What I can say is I loved it as much the second time as the first.

 

Sally Rooney, Normal People, Faber & Faber, London, 2018

Other Reviews:
Kim,  Reading Matters (here)
Kate, Booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)

Solar Bones, Mike McCormack

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Here is my research: Mike McCormack (1965 – ) is an Irish novelist. Solar Bones (2016) is his third novel and with it he won the 2018 Dublin Literary Prize of €100,000 (and some other awards which were probably more important but less valuable). I bought Solar Bones on the recommendation of Kim from Reading Matters (here), but I have only now made time to sit down and read it straight through, which I think its format demands. So here goes

the bell
the bell as
hearing the bell as
hearing the bell as standing here
the bell being heard standing here
hearing it ring out through the grey light of this
morning, noon or night
god knows
this grey day standing here and listening to this bell in the middle of the day,
ringing out through the grey light to
here
standing in the kitchen
hearing this bell
snag my heart and

the whole first page of 260 pages of one sentence, not even one sentence really, you can see it has no beginning, is divided into paragraphs with sometimes tenuous connections, has no real end, till

keep going, one foot in front of the other
the head down and keep going
keep going
keep going to fuck

I begin, reading to myself, half aloud, falling into the words, the rhythm, slowly coming to grips with the story as McCormack lapses into more continuous prose. It’s a ‘difficult’ work. It’s mid-afternoon, a bad time for me, reading or driving, I nod off a few times but find that as day becomes evening I am well into it , struggle to find somewhere to pull up, this is the virtue of the single ‘sentence’, there is no natural break, resume in the morning, this morning, go back a page, fall easily into the flow and knock off the last 30 pages before porridge and coffee.

Solar Bones is the story of a middle aged man, county engineer in a small town on the west coast of Ireland, happily married, to a school teacher, with grown up daughter, an artist, and son, backpacking, fruit picking in Queensland. The period appears by references to the Great Financial Crisis and the war in Iraq to be 2009, and the setting is probably an hour up the coast from Cork Galway (which is not named, so I’m guessing, see Kim’s Comment). Marcus, the engineer, is older than the author, “coming of age” (21?) for the 1977 general election.

He sits at the kitchen table as the bells ring out for All Souls Day and begins to recollect the circumstances of his marriage, his one infidelity while at a conference in Prague, reluctantly forgiven by his pregnant wife, the births of his children, lovemaking, the ordinary details of family life, his good relationship with his own parents, now dead. Circling back to the events of this year, Agnes, his daughter’s, first art exhibition, his visceral reaction on discovering the canvases are painted in Agnes’ blood. Mairead, his wife, becoming dangerously ill with a virus, cryptosporidium, in the town water supply, the night of the opening.*

I enjoyed lots of aspects of this novel, and yes I endorse Kimbofo’s recommendation, the easy way that Marcus’ ordinary life and understanding as an engineer is integrated into the story, that this is a middle class marriage, and parenthood, presented with no real drama and yet still enthralling. And of course McCormack’s clear love of country.

What infuriated me is that Marcus is both middle class and middle of the road. (You’ve probably noticed that I take extreme positions on everything). Marcus makes a point of voting in every election, starting with 1977 – which resulted in a landslide to the right of centre Fianna Fáil, and a corrupt local member – but votes first for one side and then the other. Mairead preserves their marriage because she takes the moral position that separation is not an option. Marcus routinely gives in to the local politicians who force him to make less than ideal engineering decisions

the vast majority of decisions are above board and go through without a hitch, but now and again, there are considerations which have nothing to do with engineering and that’s when you feel your arm being twisted so that

I wonder – I wonder lot’s of things – but I wonder if the author is writing about a type, if Marcus stands in for someone else and not himself. Much of the writing is introspective, reminiscent of our own Gerald Murnane, and it comes as no surprise when Marcus reveals that like Murnane he went from school to seminary. I wonder why McCormack who is a marvellous writer, has written so little, is 50 when this his third is published,  each novel has taken him 10 years, so there’s one answer (and there’s been some short story collections).

World fiction is largely passing me by, but I’m glad I made time for this one. Much is made in commentary of the single sentence – and it’s not a sentence but rather a continuous string of words – which draws you inexorably along, the steps from para to para sometimes clunky, sometimes natural and sometimes poetic. But yes, it works.

 

Mike McCormack, Solar Bones, Canongate, London, 2017 (first pub. Tramp Press, Dublin 2016). I have the cover above but without the disfiguring Man Booker sticker.


*I originally wrote ” (the only story I could find – here – “Cork city’s drinking water is at risk”, is dated after the book was written, make of that what you will).” but have since found – “In 2007, there was an outbreak of waterborne cryptosporidiosis in Galway, which caused illness in over 240 people, and led to the imposition of a boil water notice in Galway for a period of 5 months during the peak tourist season.” and “Cryptosporidium contamination risk led to “boil notices” remaining in place in parts of County Roscommon for approximately six-years from 2009 to 2015.” (here)

Dear Mr M, Herman Koch

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I’m not an ignoramus when it comes to contemporary international literature, but just about, so was not aware of Koch nor his “International bestseller The Dinner” before listening to Dear Mr M last week. It’s an impressive work, my library had a hard copy, so here’s a review.

Herman Koch (1953 – ) is Dutch, has written 9 novels and according to Wikipedia he writes and acts in satirical movies and tv shows. The Dinner appears to have been made into separate Dutch, Italian and US movies, none of which I’ve seen. This novel, his eighth, published as Geachte heer M in 2014, was translated by Sam Garrett. Luke Daniels’ reading was excellent though his strong American accent took some getting used to.

Too many authors since postmodernism became fashionable have responded to Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author (1967) by inserting themselves into their works, by writing about themselves writing about …, by conflating the work being read and the work within the work being read, and so on, all the time crying out “Look. Here I am. I’m not dead” [more’s the pity!]. Dear Mr M as you might have guessed, is such a work and all I can say is it’s very well done. And in any case is not as meta as some reviewers make out.

M is an ageing author, a decade older than Koch probably – I didn’t get the impression it’s a self-portrait, though it probably contains some self-mocking elements – whose best work is behind him. Still, he presses on, writing, giving talks and attending functions whose description adds a comedic element and probably earned him some enemies in what must be the relatively small Dutch literary establishment.

The protagonist, Herman, lives in the apartment below M. In a really effective bit of writing, the author uses the first person when Herman is talking or thinking about himself, the second person when Herman addresses his thoughts to M, and an omniscient third person when other characters are being observed. The most important of these are M himself; M’s young wife; Laura who was Herman’s girlfriend at school; and Jan Landzaat, a history teacher who disappears.

This disappearance leads to Dear Mr M being labelled as ‘mystery’ but I think that is a mistake, this is a literary novel whose subject is writing and being written about. M turns out to have been the author some years earlier of a bestselling ‘true crime’ novel based on the disappearance of Landzaat, in which he posits that the history teacher, who had been briefly Laura’s lover, was murdered by Herman and Laura when he called on them at a remote cottage owned by Laura’s parents, to persuade them (or himself) that he was no longer infatuated.

M is unaware that Herman, forty years later, is now his neighbour, in fact is not sufficiently aware of Herman to recognise him in the street, and is certainly not conscious that Herman is stalking him, or as it turns out, successfully stalking M’s wife to get closer to him.

Unlike most postmodern novels the novel which the author in the novel has written doesn’t become a second stream leaking into the first; instead, we return to the originals, Herman and Laura and their friends and teachers, on whom M’s novel was based and so gradually, and in parallel with Herman’s pursuit of M, we build up to and eventually pass beyond Landzaat’s disappearance.

There is a little joke which the author carries on about Landzaat’s name, based on zaat=seed=semen I think, though the Dutch word for seed seems to be not zaat but zaad. Not important I suppose, but having got this far I just had to look it up.

Herman eventually gets close enough to M to ‘interview’ him about his book. M says he believed the murder of the teacher was spontaneous, but that this wasn’t interesting enough for a work of fiction, so he made it premeditated.

But in your book the idea came up beforehand. And not just after the teacher came by the holiday home.
“It was difficult. I struggled with the motive. Or let me put it another way. I simply couldn’t believe that they would have done it just like that. And of course, just like that wasn’t interesting for a book. In dramatic terms. Dramatically speaking, a murder is better if it’s planned beforehand.”

It is an important factor in the denoument that Herman and his friend David get hold of a cheap 8mm movie camera and use it to make short films of pranks they play on others, including a teacher, and of Herman’s parents who are about to separate, which they edit together into a silent ‘movie’ titled ‘Life before Death’. Herman also films a teacher who has died at his desk and, later, Landzaat before he disappears.

This, the relationships of Herman and Laura and their friends, their antics at school and at Laura’s parents’ cottage, Laura’s seducing and soon after, dumping their history teacher to get Herman’s attention, the teacher’s falling apart, would have been an interesting story even without the metafictional elements. Herman’s pursuit of M (to what end I am even now not sure) and M’s day to day travails as an once-esteemed author, culminating in a fist fight between tuxedoed writing rivals at a gala night – shades of Denmark’s Nobel committee – take it up another notch. Highly recommended.

 

Herman Koch, Dear Mr M, first pub. as Geachte heer M, 2014, translated by Sam Garrett, Picador, London, 2016. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio, read by Luke Daniels, 13 hours.

The Children’s House of Belsen, Hetty E Verolme

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I’ve made known before my ambivalence about Holocaust stories (here) and won’t repeat them, but this one which in any case is not new, was worth listening to and adds to our understanding of the huge variety of places and backgrounds Australians come from.

Hetty Verolme (1930 – ) was born a year or so before my mother and they are both now probably happily and comfortably retired in Melbourne, but their experience of the War was completely different. While mum was attending school in the Mallee and living in relative if frugal post-Depression comfort on the meat, milk, eggs etc of my grandparents’ farm, Hetty Werkendam was confined with her parents, grandparents and two younger brothers, Max and Jack, to the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, her father paying all he could raise to the SS in a vain attempt to have the family sent to neutral Portugal in exchange for German prisoners of war.

Their neighbours being rounded up around for transport to concentration camps, her grandfather mistakenly volunteering to go to a ‘work camp’ (in fact Auschwitz), it was only a matter of time before the Werkendams too were transported, in 1943, to Bergen-Belsen. There – and it is a week or so so since I listened to this – the family were able to stay ‘together’ for a while, mother, Hetty and Jack in a women’s hut, father and Max in a men’s hut, but gathering in the women’s hut until the nighttime curfew. Mother working long hours in the ‘peel room’ attached to the kitchen and bringing back scraps of carrot. Father too having to work and held in a cage for some time for disobedience.

Food is of course inadequate, mostly watery soup and sometimes potatoes. The Germans enforce long daily assemblies in all weathers to maintain their counts of the prisoners but also out of sheer bastardry. This is a ‘solid’ account, told without a lot of emotion, though the facts, like the dead bodies, pile up and have their own force. My initial feeling was that the account was a bit wordy but on reflection I think the word constructions which I found awkward are just reflections of the author’s underlying Dutch language.

Soon father and mother are transported, separately to other camps. The 30 or 40 Dutch children left behind are moved to their own hut under the care of two Polish (and I assume Jewish) women prisoners, in particular ‘Sister’ Luba who, despite Hetty’s initial suspicions, goes to great lengths to secure food and clothing for the children.

Late in the war, the older children are also moved away, but Hetty alone, by then going on 15, secures permission to stay on, in her role as ‘little mother’. She describes the horrors of the other sections of the camp, seen as she walks through it to the kitchen. No gas chambers – though word gets back to them from Auschwitz – but starvation, hard work, sickness and punishments.

She describes a group of women dressed in rags railed in and housed in tents which blow away in a storm. She does not say so but this group includes fellow Amsterdam teenager Anne Frank, soon dead of typhus.

Hetty is herself almost dead of the same disease, which had understandably swept through the camp, when the war ends and the camp is liberated by British troops – the Germans surrender the area around the camp before the end of the war and it is still apparently British territory. The children, clinging to Sister Luba are moved to a comfortable camp where they begin to recover, but are then flown to a school building without facilities in the countryside outside Amsterdam.

The children, and their father are soon reunited. Mother, who has ended up somehow in Sweden is held up for months before she too can return to Holland. Hetty is interviewed for the BBC and elements of her story have been in the public record ever since.

The British on their arrival at the camp found tens of thousands of bodies awaiting burial. Hetty describes them being dumped in great piles visible from her sickbed window. If you have the stomach this Time-Life story includes photos. Pits were dug and SS guards, men and women, were forced into burial details.

Hetty found herself unable to return to school and entered the fashion industry – her father had been a cloth merchant. She migrated to Australia in 1954 and in 1972 was named “Most Successful Migrant”. She was a founder of a trust for the children of Belsen towards which are directed the proceeds from this book. She surprised herself by attending the 50th anniversary of the end of the War at Belsen and found many old friends.

 

Hetty E Verolme, The Children’s House of Belsen, 2000, Audiobook: Bolinda, 2011, read by Deidre Rubenstein

Wikipedia has these as her published works –

  • The Children’s House of Belsen. Published by Werma Pty. Ltd. Perth, Western Australia 2009, 2013 as Trustee for “The Children For Bergen Trust”. ISBN 978-0-9922973-0-5. First published 2000 by Fremantle Press, Western Australia.
  • Hetty: A True Story, Fremantle Press 2010, ISBN 978-19-2136-133-3

see also my ‘Anne Frank’ review: Mirjam Pressler, Treasures from the Attic (here)

Treasures from the Attic, Mirjam Pressler

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This is a difficult post to write. Not because I have any problems with the Anne Frank story. I don’t. Her diary is one of the iconic works of western, and Jewish, humanism. But because, as so many works about the Holocaust continue to appear, and to be reviewed in this corner of the blogosphere, I feel that the anodyne comments I have made to date conceal rather than represent what I think about Holocaust fiction in particular and Zionism in general.

So, it is time that I made my views clear in the hope that you will then forgive me if a) you disagree with me; and b) if I no longer comment on your posts about those two subjects.

My politics after a year or so at uni, from 1969 on, were (and remain) as I have discussed before, left-wing, anarchist and anti-war. But as well, at least partly in response to a strong (loud) right-wing Zionist movement at Melbourne Uni, they quickly became pro-Palestine and anti Israeli expansionism. Today I believe the Settler movement and the support it receives from the Israeli government is indistinguishable from Apartheid.

Like many ‘liberals’ I am torn about whether the British should have plonked the post WWII Jewish refugee problem – which they and all the Europeans were more than happy to deal with ‘off-shore’ – onto the Palestinians. But it was done, and in any case Zionism has a long history, and is now as much a fact as the Viking and Norman invasions of England. My argument is not that it should be reversed but that by behaving immorally (not to mention illegally) with regards to the Palestinians the Israelis are building up a store of trouble which will surely overwhelm them some time in the future.

My problem with Holocaust literature, and fiction in particular, is firstly with Jewish exceptionalism. Yes, we white Europeans are still horrified to discover what we were capable of in Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust is still within living memory. Anne Frank, if she had survived, would be two years younger than my healthy and active mother. But, while the blame for the Holocaust might lie with the Germans  – though they had plenty of willing collaborators throughout Europe who have not been so willing to own their share – Genocide is a world problem, the fallback position of demagogues in every country, however they use weasel words to disguise their intent.

I could mention Turkish Armenians in 1915, Rawanda in 1994, the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the shocking decline in the Indigenous population of Australia in the first century of white settlement. Arundhati Roy in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), which is written around Hindu persecution of Muslims, writes, aptly for my argument:

… there’s that other business that’s become pretty big these days. People – communities, castes, races and even countries – carry their tragic histories and their misfortunes around like trophies, or like stock, to be bought and sold on the open market. [p.195]

The point is not that Germans, or Turks or Serbs or Hutu or Hindu nationalists are bad, but that ordinary people everywhere are easily led, can be persuaded to kill, to look the other way, to fail to prevent others from killing in their name.

So my points about Holocaust fiction are that:

The Holocaust is not an argument in favour of current Israeli government policy towards Palestine – and may even be an argument against it.

More peoples than just the Jews have been the subject of systematic attempts at elimination.

Fictions about ‘good’ Germans, as To Kill a Mockingbird is about a ‘good’ white man in the South, are designed to make us feel better about being ‘upper’ – oh no, we wouldn’t behave like those Germans, those Vichy French, we would all be abolitionists or in the Resistance. The truth is the evidence suggests otherwise.

We do not need ‘historical’ fiction to remind us of the Holocaust. I write this and yet I wonder if it is true. Certainly we do not want the Holocaust used gratuitously as the background for otherwise unremarkable stories, but on the other hand survivors and their descendants are still dealing with the Holocaust every day. You only have to read Lily Brett’s Lola Bensky for this to be clear. Two recent posts – Lisa at ANZLL’s review of Belladonna by Daša Drndić (here) about failure to acknowledge guilt; and Emma at Book Around the Corner’s account of listening to and meeting F-H Désérable, the very young author of Un Certain M. Piekielny (here), put the opposite case.

“As F-H Désérable pointed out, it is only thanks to literature that we were all in this room, talking about people who died during WWII and thus acknowledging their existence and their horrible untimely death. I think that’s why dictators are often afraid of books.”

Are you still with me? I had better get to the book at hand, which I enjoyed but which I must warn you I listened to a few days ago and must review from imperfect memory. Treasures from the Attic (2012) came about when the wife of Anne Frank’s cousin decided to go through all the letters and memorabilia accumulated in the attic of the home in Basel, Switzerland which one branch of the Frank family had moved to, from Munich, in the 1930s.

Mirjam Pressler was selected by the family to write up the letters because she had previously edited the definitive (German) version of Anne Frank’s Diary. This is a story in itself. Anne apparently intended her diary to be published and from her first ‘raw’ version wrote a second, more polished version which differed in a number of respects from the first. Anne’s father Otto on coming into possession of the diaries after his release from Auschwitz, combined the two to produce the version first published and I think he may also have done the first translation from Anne’s Dutch to his native German.

The story – and it is fascinating to have so much background come to light on such an iconic figure – is in three parts, telling the lives of three generations of Anne Frank’s family:

Alice, Anne’s grandmother, married to Michael Frank

Helene (Leni) Elias, Alice’s daughter and younger sister of Robert, Otto and Hector Frank.

Buddy Elias, Leni’s son and Anne’s cousin who had played with her when she was 9, who continued to correspond with her until the progress of the war made that impossible, and who gradually became the principal advocate of Anne Frank’s Diary as Otto grew older.

In the early part of the twentieth century Michael Frank had become a prosperous merchant banker in Munich with his three sons serving in the German army during WWI. Even during the hyper-inflation of the 1920s I think the family did ok, but with the rise of Nazism it was felt prudent to emigrate. Robert became an art dealer in London; Otto, the head of the family business after his father’s death, moved the bank to Amsterdam; Hector never settled down but eventually spent the war attached to the Elias’s in Basel.

Leni and her husband Eric(?) moved to Basel where Eric was the director of a German firm, but increasingly the Elias family’s income came from Leni’s business buying and selling the unwanted possessions of Jews fleeing Europe. They were joined in Basel by Alice and by Leni’s mother in law.

Pressler tells these stories, which are interesting in themselves, without ever losing her focus on Anne. Holland, despite declaring its neutrality on the outbreak of war, was occupied by the Germans in May 1940. Otto made increasingly desperate pleas to be allowed to emigrate, to the US, to England, to Cuba, but they were all refused. And as is well known, eventually went in to hiding with his family in the ‘secret annexe’.  By the end of the war 70% of the Jewish population of Holland had been deported and murdered (wiki).

Betrayed and shipped to Auschwitz, of the Otto Franks only Otto survived. On his release he was returned to Holland, although even there his citizenship was uncertain. His letters to Leni tell of Anne and her older sister Margot being taken away and of Anne’s mother dying of illness and starvation in the last few weeks before liberation.

Eventually the family is given a heart-rending account of the girls dying together in Bergen-Belsen by the last women to be with them.

Leni’s and then Buddy’s story pick up Otto’s life after the war and the rise and rise of Anne Frank’s Diary, the book, the play, the movie.

 

Mirjam Pressler, Treasures from the Attic, Penguin, 2012 (No English translator acknowledged). Audio version BrillianceAudio, read by Sherry Adams Foster