Tag Archives: Daniel Kehlmann

Four Days in Vienna and One Book

Vienna viewReaders of a certain age may remember Midge Ure moodily singing ‘Vienna’ on Top of the Pops way back when. So embedded in our consciousness did it become for H and me that whenever one says ‘it means nothing to me’ the other pipes up ‘Oh, Vienna’. We both managed to keep it under control on our hols but H failed miserably with the other inevitable earworm, zithering away under his breath just loud enough for me to catch it now and again. I spotted The Third Man playing at one of the many cinemas we walked past as I’m pretty sure it always is somewhere in the city.

Vienna seemed like an extension of last summer’s Baltic jaunt in a way, inhabiting as it does that area nineteenth century Germans called Mitteleuropa. After what felt like months of rain in the UK we were looking forward to a bit of chilly, snowy weather which is just what we got on the first day when we strode out along the Ringstrasse for breakfast. Much of our four days were spent on this horseshoe of streets stuffed full of imposing architecture. Vienna is very much the grand imperial city, looking back on its past glories rather than forwards. We were both struck by how conservative it felt, very different from Berlin. It’s also a city famous for its café culture – politicos and intellectuals pontificating about the world. Truth be told, we were more interested in cake than pontificating although we did do a bit of that. Whenever you walk into a Viennese café the first thing you see is an array of distractingly delectable cakes, impossible to resist and pointless to try. Our favourite was Cafe Central, a temple of delight with its lovely arched ceiling and enough history to have its own Wikipedia entry.

When not eating cake, looking up at art nouveau embellishments or the ubiquitous Hapsburg double-headed eagles and trying to avoid earworms we were visiting museums the best of which for me was Secession named after the movement, co-founded by Gustav Klimt, whichSecession designed it. The Vienna Secession was akin to Britain’s Arts and Crafts Movement, turning its back firmly on the art establishment and its obsession with the past. It’s a lovely building, crowned by a globe of golden laurels and gorgeously decorated on the outside. Unsurprisingly it was greeted with horror by the Viennese bourgeoisie when it was first built. Now it houses Klimt’s beautiful frieze, inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. MAK, Vienna’s equivalent to the V&A, was my other favourite with its delicately painted arched ceilings, somewhat marred by the giant inflatable figures squatting in the entrance hall as part of an installation. Great café, though! Our last day was bright and sunny so we headed for Palmenhaus – a bit like having your lunch in one of Kew’s glasshouses – and very fine it was, too. Our final stop was the Central for hot chocolate and cake, surely the only way to finish a Viennese holiday.

Me and KaminskiAppropriately enough, my favourite holiday book turned out to be by a Viennese native, Daniel Kehlmann’s Me and Kaminski translated by the late great Carol Brown Janeway. It’s a smart, very funny novel which lampoons both the worlds of art and journalism with its story of Sebastian Zöllner, an arrogant, vain whippersnapper of an art critic hoping to make his name by writing the biography of Manuel Kaminksi, once the protégé of Matisse, now ageing and blind. Kehlmann takes us on a road trip in search of Kaminski’s lost love in which Zöllner manipulates, cons and lies to all and sundry only to be outdone at his own game. Excellent!

Back to real life now with all its attendant chores. Missing those breaks for kaffee und kuchen, particularly the kuchen.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in June 2015

The Paying GuestsI’ve reviewed all but two of the June paperbacks that have caught my eye so forgive me if I cram the lot into a single post and let the reviews speak for themselves. I’ll start with one that I haven’t got around to reading although I’ve had a copy for some time: Sarah Waters’ Baileys shortlisted The Paying Guests. I’m a big fan of Waters’ earlier novels but not so much her last two. In this one, she’s shifted her gaze from the 1940s to the ‘20s, setting her book in Camberwell where Frances and her widowed mother have fallen on hard times and are taking in lodgers. The arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, neither as genteel as the Wrays, shakes up the household in what Waters has called a love story ‘in which the love is forbidden, in all sorts of ways; it’s a story in which the love is dangerous’.

My second unreviewed title is Peter Buwalda’s much lauded Bonita Avenue, described as ‘a darkly hilarious tale’ in which a vulnerable young man finds himself embraced by his girlfriend’s family headed by the multi-talented Professor Sigerius. Things go horribly wrong, apparently, with all sorts of shenanigans from an explosion in a firework factory to a forgotten murderer turning up. Translated from the Dutch, it sounds as if it’s from the same school as Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Esther Gerritsen’s Craving.

There are two other translated titles on this month’s list, both by German authors, each very different from the other. Hard to choose which is my favourite but if pushed I’d plump for Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, although it’s a bit of a Marmite novel: you’ll either marvel at the way Erpenbeck adroitly handles the constant shifts in narrative throughout her complex novel or you’ll despair of ever keeping track as she views the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly re-imagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life. I thought it was excellent, but I’m a Marmite fan.

Written in a mixture of three different first-person narratives with third-person sections crisscrossing time and assorted other devices you’d think that Daniel Kehlmann’s F might become a little fragmented but Kehlmann is so deft that it flows beautifully, following Arthur Friedland and his two sons whose visit to a hypnotist when they boys are children has unforeseen consequences that will reverberate through all their lives.

Emma Freud’s Mr Mac and Me is the first of two novels I enjoyed so much that I included Cover imagethem on my Baileys Prize wish list although the judges disagreed. Impoverished and homeless, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his artist wife Margaret spent the first year of the First World War on the Suffolk coast at Walberswick. Freud tells their story from the point of view of Thomas Maggs, the thirteen-year-old son of a local publican with whom the Mackintoshs strike up a friendship. Such a shame to see that the beautiful hardback jacket has been swapped for a rather prosaic image.

Set on the Norfolk coast, not so very far from Walberswick, Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood was another surprising omission from the Baileys longlist. Its premise is enticing enough and it’s beautifully written, too. A middle-aged man exhausted by the seemingly endless heatwave that’s hit London shuts up shop and heads off to his brother’s house in Norfolk. He’s forgotten to take a map but is convinced he knows the way until his car breaks down miles from anywhere. He spots a house on the horizon and makes for it only to find himself welcomed as if he’s expected and ushered into a room which has been prepared for him where he finds boxes labelled with his name.

The last two are by American authors, the first of which has a title that I’m sure has been mangled constantly up and down the land: Judy Chicurel’s If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go. It’s the title of the final chapter of the book whose meaning becomes clear towards its end. Set in the summer of 1972, If I Knew… is narrated by Katie, the adopted daughter of a white-collar family who spends her time in Elephant Beach’s rundown Comanche Street, a district frequented by drunks and druggies. It’s an episodic novel which draws you in nicely.

Lucky UsFinally, Amy Bloom’s much more manageably titled Lucky Us follows Eva whose mother dumps her unceremoniously on her father’s doorstep. Beginning in 1939, it’s a story of tangled relationships stretching over a decade. Lucky Us has an empathetic quality which makes its many flawed characters both attractive and believable.

That’s it for June paperbacks, a rather longer post than I’d intended but too short to spread over two. A click on first two titles will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis; the rest are reviewed on this blog. If you want to see which June hardbacks I’m eagerly anticipating, they’re here and here.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

F: A match made in heaven

Cover imageI don’t read as much fiction in translation as I should but when I see a novel translated by Carol Brown Janeway in the publishing schedules I sit up and take notice. It was through her that I first discovered Daniel Khelmann’s fiction, beginning with the very fine Measuring the World about two eighteenth-century German mathematicians: Alexander von Humboldt who enthusiastically travelled the world measuring everything in sight willing to endure the most horrendous conditions accompanied by the long-suffering Bonpland, and the irascible but brilliant Carl Friedrich Gauss, reluctant to leave his own bedroom let alone cross a border. Very different from the playful, episodic Fame which satirises celebrity and is also immensely enjoyable. F is yet another different kettle of fish and already I have that rare feeling of looking forward to reading it again. There’s so much in this slim novel that one reading won’t suffice.

It begins with one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read in a while:

Years later, long since fully grown and each of them enmeshed in his own particular form of unhappiness, none of Arthur Friedland’s sons could recall whose idea it had actually been to go to the hypnotist that afternoon.

Unhappiness, indeed. Martin grows up to become a faithless priest struggling and failing to keep his burgeoning weight under control, still in the grips of his boyhood obsession with Rubik’s cube. Eric becomes a financier, on the brink of ruin having lost his most important client’s fortune, unable to keep his sexual peccadilloes under control and plagued by a terrifying paranoia, while his twin Ivan, the executor for the artist Eulenboeck whose work fetches a pretty price, satisfies his own thwarted artistic ambitions in a somewhat unorthodox way. Their father, immune to the Great Lindemann’s hypnotic techniques, or so he insists, packs up and leaves shortly after the performance on that long ago afternoon in 1984, becoming a household name when his book My Name is No One, triggers an existential crisis in the nation. That’s the bare bones of it but Kehlmann’s novel is very much more subtle than that.

Written in a mixture of three different first-person narratives with third-person sections criss-crossing time and assorted other devices you’d think that F might become a little fragmented but Kehlmann is so deft that it flows beautifully. You never quite know which way you’ll be taken next but that’s part of the enjoyment. Along the way, Kehlmann takes swipes at both the art and financial worlds, religion and a whole barrage of modern obsessions, carefully aiming barbs here and there with a hefty helping of quiet humour. All the various pieces of his puzzle fit together beautifully, clicking smoothly into place. If Jeffrey Eugenides hadn’t already used the analogy, I’d compare it to Martin’s beloved Rubik’s cube. Of course none of the many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle would fit so snugly were it not for Janeway’s faultless translation. They truly are a brilliant pairing. If you know of any other combination aside from Murakami’s translators – also a match made in heaven – I would love to hear about it.

Books to look out for in October 2014

There’s already a nip of autumn in the air in the UK – a bit unexpected but there it is – so it seemed appropriate to take a dekko at a few books to look out for in October. It used to be one of my favourite publishing months but if you’ve read my August and September posts you’ll know that schedules seem to have shifted a little, spilling over into earlier months rather like the summer sales. As a result, this is going to be a shorter post that I’d expected with only four novels that really push my literary buttons. As ever, a click on the link will take you to Waterstones synopsis should you want to learn more.

Cover imageLet’s start with the cherry on my particular cake: Colm Tóibin’s Nora Webster, set in the late ‘60s in the same small Irish town which Ellis Lacey left in Brooklyn. Left alone with four children, the fiercely intelligent Nora must start again after the premature death of her husband, returning to work and slowly building a life of her own. Brooklyn is one of my favourite novels. Written in gorgeous, elegant prose it’s a quiet masterpiece that will wring your heart. I caught wind of a new Tóibin novel some time ago and am delighted to see it in the October schedules. Lovely nostalgic jacket, too

Next in line is  If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, a fine confident title that will no doubt be mangled when requested in bookshops. It’s a debut set in close-knit ’70s Long Island (that’s sold it to me immediately) and follows a group of young working-class people wrestling with life and all it brings in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Sounds right up my alley and I plan to review it here nearer publication.

My third book’s title is the antithesis of Judy Chicurel’s wordy but enticing debut: Daniel Kehlmann’s F tells the story of three brothers – one a faithless priest, one an artist without integrity, the third a poverty-stricken banker – all of whom are about to take a fateful step. I’ve read and very much enjoyed Kehlmann’s work before. Measuring the World is about two eighteenth century German mathematicians: Alexander von Humboldt who enthusiastically travelled the world measuring everything in sight willing to endure the most horrendous conditions accompanied by the long-suffering Bonpland, and the irascible but brilliant Carl Friedrich Gauss, reluctant to leave his own bedroom let alone cross a border. Very different from the playful, episodic Fame which satirises celebrity and is also immensely enjoyable.

Last but far from least – the second cherry if such a luscious cake exists – is Michel Faber’s Cover imageThe Book of Strange New Things. Fans of The Crimson Petal and the White won’t need any persuasion and if you shied away from that because of its doorstep proportions, please think again. It may be over 800 pages but it’s a rollicking good read which flies by. This one is literally a world away from the grimy nineteenth century slums of Crimson. Funded by a shadowy multinational, Peter is leaving his beloved wife behind, sent to a colony on another planet where he is to spread the word of God. It’s a book that addresses big questions, apparently, and has been described as ‘compelling and brilliant’.

That’s my somewhat abbreviated October post. Are there any authors whose next novel you’re eagerly anticipating?

Lost in Translation

When I was a reviews editor I tried my best to make sure that translators were credited in the bibliographic information that accompanies reviews. It didn’t always work: sometimes space was tight and the sub-editors had to cut the copy but sometimes the fact that it was a translated work was not immediately apparent. Perhaps the translator hadn’t been credited on the book’s jacket or I may have been sent a manuscript with no mention of a translator’s name.

I thought about this Cover imagelast week when I finished Daniel Kehlmann’s excellent Measuring the World about two eighteenth century German mathematicians: Alexander von Humboldt who enthusiastically travelled the world measuring everything in sight willing to endure the most horrendous conditions accompanied by the long suffering Bonpland, and the irascible but brilliant Carl Friedrich Gauss, reluctant to leave his own bedroom let alone cross a border.  I read the book partly on a recommendation but also because it had been translated by Carol Brown Janeway. I first noticed Janeway’s name when I read Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader many years ago and have since read several other novels just because she translated them.

I remember hearing a radio programme about how poorly paid translators of fiction are, and that many of them do it for love of the books that they work on. Low pay for such a skilled job seems unfair – a good translator captures both the spirit and style of the book, a bad one will ruin it. Haruki Murakami uses several translators, two of whom – Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel – managed to replicate the same idiosyncratic style when translating the zillions of pages that make up 1Q84 to the extent that you really can’t see the join. Perhaps poor fees in the UK have been justified because fiction in translation is notorious for not selling well here but that can’t be true of the many Scandi crime novels whose authors must have gratefully set up a shrine to Henning Mankell in their living rooms. Whatever the reason, translators at least deserve recognition so many apologies to anyone I failed to credit over the years. And for any fellow Murakami fans who haven’t yet heard, his new novel – already going down a storm in Japan – looks set to be translated in 2014.