A quiet month for paperbacks in November with the book trade in full swing for Christmas. Just four of interest for me, one of which I’ve already reviewed. Guillermo Erades’ Back to Moscow didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved when it was first published back in March and is in danger of the same thing happening given everyone has their eye on their Christmas present lists by the time it’s published. I hope I’m wrong about that. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s set in Moscow, back at the beginning of the century when the city was stuffed full of expats with their eye on the main chance. It’s the story of a young man, studying for a PhD more because of happenstance than any burning desire, and the things he gets up to – a kind of Rake’s Progress, if you like, but what could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that. Steeped in Russian literature where happy endings are at a premium, it’s also an atmospheric portrait of a city in the midst of transforming itself.
Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower is set a decade or so before Back to Moscow, the tumultuous events which led to the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellite states yet to come. The East German experience is reflected and refracted through the experiences of a soldier, a surgeon, a nurse and a publisher against the backdrop of Dresden. ‘With evocative detail, Uwe Tellkamp masterfully reveals the myriad perspectives of the time as people battled for individuality, retreated to nostalgia, chose to conform, or toed the perilous line between East and West. Poetic, heartfelt and dramatic, The Tower vividly resurrects the sights, scents and sensations of life in the GDR as it hurtled towards 9 November 1989’ say the publishers. Tellkamp was born in Dresden in 1968 and was arrested in 1989 for ‘political sabotage’ which suggests that this will be an insightful read.
Translated by the excellent Anthea Bell, Saša Stanšic’s Before the Feast may offer a little light relief after that. It sounds a little convoluted and the blurb gives a flavour far better than I can, not having read it: ‘It’s the night before the Feast in the village of Furstenfelde (population: declining), but not everyone is asleep. The local artist, wearing an evening dress and gum-boots, goes down to the lake under cover of darkness. The village archivist is kept awake by ancient tales that threaten to take on a life of their own. A retired lieutenant-colonel weighs his pistol, and his future, in his hand. And eighteen-year-old Anna, namesake of the Feast, prepares to take her place in tomorrow’s drinking and dancing, eating and burning. On this night of misdeeds and mischief, they are joined by a dead ferryman, a hapless bellringer, a cigarette machine, two robbers in football shirts and a vixen on the hunt – as their fates collide in the most unexpected ways’ which sounds quite extraordinary. Anthea Bell has replaced the late Carol Brown Janeway as my translator to watch so this one goes straight on the list despite any reservations about magic realism I might have.
My final choice is, unusually for me, a short story collection: Helen Simpson’s Cockfosters. Her smart, witty collection of linked stories Hey Yeah Right Get a Life had me hooked when it first came out. She’s very funny – sharply observant of human foibles but compassionate with it – which makes me keen to read Cockfosters. The link here is Tube stations which should appeal to London commuters and seems tailor-made for a Transport for London advertising campaign although it does venture outside the metropolis, opening ‘irresistible new windows onto the world from Arizona to Dubai and from Moscow to Berlin’ according to the publishers, neatly taking this post back to where it started.
That’s it for November. A click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis for the last three titles and to my review for Back to Moscow. And if you’d like to catch up with November’s new titles they’re here.