It was its setting that initially attracted me to Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun. I’m a sucker for novels set in my favourite cities: New York, Amsterdam and, in this case, Berlin. Based on the case of Otto Wacker, Clark’s novel explores the machinations of the self-regarding art world taken in by an audacious fraud against the background of the failed Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis.
In 1923 Julius Köhler-Schultz, pillar of the art establishment, meets a young dealer, apparently respectful of his expertise and eager for his assessment of a painting he wants to sell. Julius finds himself falling under Matthias Rachmann’s spell, easing the misery of his acrimonious divorce with the balm of Matthias’ esteem. Julius is the author of a bestselling van Gogh biography whose American royalties have protected him from the ravages of rampant inflation. His dearest possession is a painting by the artist which his wife took when she left together with their son. As the relationship between the two men deepens, Matthias seeks Julius’ seal of approval for more artworks until an incident between Julius and a young girl strains it to snapping point. Emmeline is a talented artist who loses herself in Berlin’s decadent partying, eventually finding work as an illustrator in 1927. When she attends the opening of Matthias’ new gallery which proudly boasts a cache of lost van Goghs, she meets an aspiring journalist who scents a scandal and roots it out. By 1933 the Jewish lawyer who defended Matthias watches as Berlin falls into the Nazis’ grip, reluctant to leave yet fearful for his and his wife’s safety. As his work dwindles away he begins to examine Matthias’ case again.
From her Author’s Note it’s clear that Clark’s novel closely follows the trajectory of the Wacker case, reimagining it and fleshing it out through three vividly realized characters from whose perspective she tells her story. Matthias’ duplicity is signaled from the beginning of his carefully fostered relationship with Julius whose public approbation he needs to enact his breathtaking fraud. The art establishment, with its tight-lipped unity in the face of Matthias’ hoodwinking, is smartly skewered and the depiction of Berlin’s streets full of brownshirts emboldened in their ant-Semitic abuse is chilling. Mid-way through I began to wander if Clark would manage to knit her three perspectives together but it works. An absorbing novel which perceptively explores human vanity while depicting a city on the brink of what will become a catastrophe for the world.
Impossible not to comment on that title which makes the old bookseller in me wonder just how much it will be mangled in customer enquiries. I’m sure the publishers breathed a sigh of relief that Twitter have extended their 140-character limit, too. That said, it was the title which attracted me to this novella along with its setting largely in Berlin, one of my favourite European cities. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with interesting fiction. One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s first novel. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany.
Coming out of the east, the wolf turns west into a forest where no wolf has been seen since 1843, crossing many people’s paths as it moves closer and closer to Berlin. Caught up in a traffic jam on his way back from Poland to his Berlin flat, Tomasz snaps the wolf on his phone, a shot which will later seize the media by storm. Elisabeth and Micha, two runaways from close to the border, spot the wolf’s tracks deep in the forest. Charly who runs a kiosk with his partner in an up and coming area of Berlin becomes haunted by his faceout with the wolf. A woman, intent on burning her dead mother’s diaries, spots it in the distance. The whole of Berlin falls under its spell, obsessed with this interloper who inspires both fear and wonder. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t, in this carefully constructed intricate piece of fiction which offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one.
This is such a clever, beautifully structured novella which seems to me to hold a mirror up to the reunified Germany through the stories of the characters whose path the wolf crosses. Tomasz is an economic migrant, uncomfortable in Berlin and longing for home; the ageing remaining occupants of the apartment block he’s helping to gentrify in the old east Berlin are determined not to be ousted; Elisabeth’s mother bitterly resents her ex-husband for thwarting her artistic career while Micha’s father has taken to drink in the face of economic decline. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by the fragmented structure of this novella in which deftly handled coincidences abound. It’s a triumph – both absorbing and thought-provoking. I’d suggest putting aside any difficultly stumbling over that title in your local bookshop and grabbing yourself a copy.
Back in 2012 Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel was longlisted for what was then the Orange Prize. In case you’re wondering Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles won it that year. I remember enjoying Stothard’s novel very much. It may have been the jacket with its powder blue, low slung car parked outside a pastel desert hotel that first attracted me but the story of a young girl who travels to her estranged mother’s funeral hoping to find out more about her was nicely turned out and engrossing with it. The same could be said of The Museum of Cathy with its compulsive tale of obsession and memory, although I’m not entirely sure about that jacket.
Cathy is thrown off-kilter when a swallow flies into her office at the Berlin Natural History Museum. It’s not that she’s afraid of birds but despite her training as a scientist it’s her mother’s superstition that a trapped bird is a bad omen which springs to mind. She’s watched with amusement by her fiancé Tom. It’s a big day for both of them. The museum is celebrating its 150th birthday with a dinner for the great and good at which Cathy is to receive an award. These two have been together for five years. Tom is a straightforward kind of guy to whom Cathy is an enigma, barely acknowledging her troubled childhood, body covered in scars and mind full of erudition. Later in the day Cathy unwraps a package, chilled by what she finds inside – no name or note, just a kissing beetle perfectly caught in amber. She knows it’s from Daniel, the man she fled five years ago just before he was jailed thanks to her tip-off. She and Daniel are bound by something which he calls love but she does not, sharing a past fraught with tragedy and guilt. Over the course of one hot Berlin day, Stothard’s novel unravels Cathy’s story beginning with her Essex childhood.
Flitting back and forth between Berlin and Essex, The Museum of Cathy unfolds in a series of flashbacks woven through the increasingly dramatic events in Berlin. Stothard perceptively explores the complexity of desire, guilt and obsession through Cathy’s tortured relationship with Daniel. Her language is simple yet striking: ‘She felt dirty all the time and as if there was no release from the trouble in her head’ summons up Cathy’s guilt and grief; ‘He’d seen Cathy’s face in the white light as he ruined the man’s shins and jaws’ conveys Daniel’s uncontrollable rage and its focus. The novel’s drama plays out against a backdrop of gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, from Cathy’s fearless childhood explorations of the Essex coastline to the contents of the Berlin museum. Throughout it all runs a taut thread of tension. It’s a short, sharp novel, quickly swallowed up in an afternoon, which takes its readers – perhaps a little too neatly – full circle. Very different from The Pink Hotel but I enjoyed it enormously.
Bear with me – this is likely to turn into a long post. After last year’s successful jaunt in the Baltic states H and I decided that this year we’d take to the central European railways. We started in Berlin where, after two winter trips visiting a multitude of museums, we hoped to explore the city’s many green spaces. Beautiful weather on our first day saw us heading off to the Grunewald woods, a short S-Bahn ride away from central Berlin, along with lots of Berliners out enjoying the last days of summer, not to mention their dogs who may have popped into Pets’ Deli for a lip-smacking plate of fresh meat on their way for a swim. We spent the next few days walking our socks off – setting the tone for the rest of the holiday – admiring Berlin’s elegant architecture and parks with a trip out to Potsdam, a sweet little town half an hour away, where we had a nosy around the Russian colony with its gingerbread houses and large orchards. On one of our evening walks we stumbled upon Dussmann‘s a fabulous bookshop: three packed floors including a very respectably stocked English section.
Dresden was our next stop, full of florid architecture some of it rebuilt after the war when much of the city was fire bombed, including the Lutheran Frauenkirche which we visited along with umpteen other tourists. It would have been stunning without being told of its reconstruction but knowing that most of it had been painstakingly put back together using the rubble of its bombed ruins made it quite breathtaking. The beginnings of a heat wave curtailed our plans a little but we managed to fit in a lunch at the resplendently tiled and curlicued Pfunds Molkerai plus a look around the hipster Kunsthofpassage, its walls adorned with mosaics and murals.
The Molkerai would fit nicely into Karlovy Vary, a hilly Czech spa town packed with extravagant architecture including some lovely art nouveau buildings, where we spent the weekend: Bath with knobs on as H put it or as le Corbusier, perhaps a little more elegantly, dubbed it ‘a rally of cakes’. A favourite with Russians, it was stuffed with blingy shops but we loved it.
Onto Prague where it was beautiful but blisteringly hot. It wasn’t my first visit but a sprained ankle on the Charles Bridge put the kybosh on that particular holiday. This visit was much more successful. We spent most of our time wandering around admiring Prague’s many stunning buildings. Look up is the thing to do – even some of the grimmest shop fronts are graced with fabulously ornamented facades on their upper floors
We’d booked two nights in Brno the Czech Republic’s second city, hoping to visit the Villa Tugendhat, Mies van de Rohe‘s modernist masterpiece which inspired Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room. I’d been trying to reserve places for us on a guided tour for four months with no luck. Undeterred we set off anyway and were rewarded with a delightfully laid back day, very welcome after the seething masses of Prague. The villa is gorgeous, a work of genius. All white walls and glass it seems to float above the ground. Although we weren’t able to go inside we were allowed to wander around the garden pressing our noses to the window to see the equally lovely interior. The villa was the draw for us but there are a multitude of other things to see in Brno, so many that we regretted having booked only two nights. Definitely a place to revisit on another expedition.
Our arrival in Slovakia’s Bratislava for our last few days coincided with the EU summit rubbing salt in our Brexit wounds. It’s a sweet little town but truth be told we’d both tired of it within a day or so. A boat trip out to Danubiana, the city’s beautiful modern art showcase with its sculpture garden stuffed full of goodies, cheered us up no end. As part of their Miró exhibition they’d hit on the idea of mocking up his studio, which we’d visited in Palma last year, displaying several of his paintings as if he’d just completed them. It’s a great exhibition – vibrant tactile tapestries, sculpture and paintings all demonstrating the supreme talent of the man.
Given Bratislava’s limited charms and a late flight home from Vienna we decided to catch a morning train and spend our last afternoon there, despite a slightly disappointing visit earlier in the year. Lunch, a bit of culture at the Albertina then a plate of kaisershmarrn rounded off the holiday nicely. It was a wonderful trip, made easy by the spiffy transport links in the countries through which we traveled and their excellent websites. All credit and thanks due to H who painstakingly put it together.
And the books? Not much reading was done with so much hopping on and off trains plus researching the next destination but two stand out. My favourite was Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway, a very funny novel which lampoons the pretensions of the old families of the American South – loudly proclaimed Civil War connections, class, old v. new money – ending on a suitably histrionic note. Totally inappropriate for where we were but very enjoyable. Much more relevant was Emanuel Litvinoff’s The Lost Europeans. Originally published in 1958, Litvinoff’s first novel explores the legacy of the Second World War through the story of Martin Stone, visiting Berlin for the first time since he fled the Nazis with his parents aged nine. It’s an interesting period piece, enlightening and atmospheric for me having spent the first few days of the holiday in the city but cringe-makingly heavy-handed in its writing.
Back to real life for us both now, and back to books for the blog next week.
Two things attracted me to Gail Jones’ new novel: its Berlin setting – a city with which I’m almost as infatuated as I am with New York as a backdrop – and the prospect of the elegantly, poetic writing I’d enjoyed so much in her previous novels. I liked the synopsis, too: six people – all Nabokov aficionados, all visitors to Berlin – gather together to discuss the work of their literary hero but begin by telling their own stories. Those in the know will have realised, of course, that Jones’ title mirrors that of a Nabokov short story.
Cass is in Berlin hoping to write. She’s rents a pokey studio flat and travels the U-Bahn exploring this wintry city so different from her native Australia. One day a young man approaches her as she looks up at one of the many apartments Nabokov lived in and asks her if she’d like to join the small group he’s gathered to discuss their literary idol’s work. There are six members including Cass: Victor is an American academic, recently retired; Marco was once at university with Gino, a fellow Roman; Yukio and Mitsuko are Japanese, and obviously in love. At the first meeting they decide that each member will tell their story, openly and freely – a ‘speak-memory’ in honour of their hero. Victor begins with his tale of Holocaust survivor parents. Gino’s life has been marked by the horrible coincidence of his father’s death on the day he was born. Marco’s father walked out when he was eight, seemingly unable to cope with his son’s epilepsy. Mitsuko and Yukio’s stories are more happily linked – she was the Lolita Girl, dressing in little girls’ clothes, who rescued Yukio from his self-imposed isolation, the reason for which he explains in his own story. Finally, it’s Cass’s turn but she finds herself unable to speak of the loss of her brother, talking only of her childhood home and love of butterflies. The group resolve to discuss their love of Nabokov’s work when they next meet. Then things take a very dark and unexpected turn.
Jones’ descriptions of Berlin in winter are wonderfully atmospheric, so vivid that they provide a stage set against which the drama of her novel unfolds. She perfectly captures the louring greyness of the Berlin sky and the beauty of the first snowfall. She took me back to winter holidays, complete with the brightly coloured fibre-glass bears which are all over the city, the only colour at that time of year. At times it reminded me of the Decameron as each character tells their story but, of course, the abundant literary allusions are to Nabokov’s life and work. Some are overt – the titular story is summarised nicely, Cass’s love of butterflies, the speak-memories echoing Nabokov’s own autobiographical memoir, Mitsuko’s Lolita outfits – some are more oblique – a fire engine is described as a ‘pale fire’ against the Berlin grey. I’m sure there are many more that I failed to identify, having only scant knowledge of his work. All beautifully presented, then, but the event which precipitates the group’s dissolution felt painfully staged, stretching my credibility and leaving me somewhat disappointed. I enjoyed it but I think Sorry remains my favourite Jones novel.
If you’d like a second opinion you might like to visit Kim over at Reading Matters who’s reviewed the book as part of her year reading Australian literature. You can follow that on Twitter via #ReadingAustralia2016. I can recommend it!