Alice by Judith Hermann (transl. Margot Bettauer Dembo): Small but perfectly formed

I hope that all went well for the many booksellers working their socks off yesterday selling Dan Brown’s new novel but I can’t help feeling sad that so much depends upon a handful of authors to keep the book trade afloat. So many excellent books sink without trace or leave little impression. I haven’t read any of the Dan Brown books and so can’t comment on them but I suspect that the slim beautifully written Alice by Judith Hermann published by the lovely Clerkenwell Press might be one Cover imageof those books that was barely noticed although it did get a glowing review in the Guardian from Philip Hensher when it was published in the UK. It’s a set of five interlinked short stories, each a meditation on loss and death.

In elegant understated prose Herman writes about the strange and dislocated world we enter when we lose someone close to us or watch a dear friend be drawn into that world. Everyday events become pointless or strange to us, we do what little we can to help those bereft perhaps buying flowers on the way to visit them, we find ourselves unable to voice the words when acquaintances ask after those we have lost and we see them everywhere. The latter is almost a cliché yet Hermann handles it beautifully, writing of Alice’s frustration at seeing Raymond, her dead husband, in the last carriage of a train as it disappears from view. Friends offer consolation – an old lover tenderly feeds her open sandwiches spread with his mother’s cherry jam – just as she has offered consolation to her friend Margaret when her husband died. This is a beautiful book and would not have been so for a British audience without the skill of Herman’s translator Margot Bettauer Dembo. Translators seem to me to be the unsung heroes of foreign fiction. And if it seems odd that I’m recommending short stories after Monday’s post I think the secret’s in the interlinking which makes Herman’s stories cohere. Alice reads much more like a novel than a collection for me.

What excellent news that Philip Hensher who sang Judith Hermann’s praises has won the Ondaatje Prize for Scenes from Early Life, and how lovely that we live in age when he can have a husband let alone write a prize winning novel about him. Given our current economic and meteorological gloom it’s easy to become disenchanted with the world but when an openly gay man can write a book about his husband it’s time to acknowledge that things really do get better.

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