Tag Archives: Don Bartlett

Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen (transl. Don Bartlett): ‘This is a city so small everyone has the same shadow’

Cover imageNorway is the one Scandinavian country I’ve yet to visit, slightly put off by reports of ruinous expense and rain, although I’m sure I’ll go at some stage. It’s part of the reason I was attracted to Lars Saabye Christensen’s first instalment of a planned trilogy, Echoes of the City, set in post-war Oslo where he was born. Opening in 1947, Christensen’s novel takes us to the Fagerborg district where the Red Cross have established a department, telling the story of the city’s emergence from war time austerity through the Kristoffersen family and their neighbours.

Ewald Kristoffersen works for an advertising agency while his wife Maj looks after their seven-year-old son. Jesper’s a little difficult. Restless and given to sudden inexplicable tantrums, he’s a year late starting school. Ewald tends to avoid spending time alone with him if he can, preferring to call in at the Hotel Bristol with his colleagues where the melancholy Enzo plays piano, but when Maj volunteers for the local Red Cross he has no choice. Maj has a talent for accounts and is soon elected treasurer raising hopes that the family might be shunted up the telephone waiting list so that they are no longer summoned upstairs to Fru Vik’s. Maj and Fru Vik have a slightly uneasy relationship. Fru Vik is a little withdrawn, still mourning her husband, but Maj needs her to look after Jesper now and again. When Jesper starts school, he finds it hard to make friends until Jostein, the butcher’s son, deaf thanks to a trolley-bus accident, sits next to him. Jesper begins to ‘hear’ for Jostein and a friendship begins. Over the next few years Jesper will display a talent for the piano, fostered by Enzo, Fru Vik will find a companion despite a good deal of opposition and uneasiness, Maj will shine as the Red Cross treasurer and Ewald will discover just how much he loves his family.

Let us continue, not that there is any rush; on the contrary, we have plenty of time. But to those who wish to accompany us, please adjust to our pace

Echoes of the City begins with a prologue which sees Jesper about to set off to sea on September 22nd, 1957, the day after Norway’s King Hakkon died, then winds back to 1947 as Christensen takes up the Kristoffersens’ story, appending Red Cross meeting minutes to the end of each chapter. It’s a structure that works better than I thought it might at first, providing a backdrop of social history to the lives of Fagerborg’s inhabitants. Christensen’s narrative slips from character to character with ease, while keeping its focus on the Kristoffersens. It’s infused with a gentle, affectionate humour – the Red Cross ladies are a wee bit put out when gratitude for their help is unforthcoming, Jesper is utterly horrified at finding his father naked in all his fatness – coupled with poignancy as the characters’ stories unfold.

As promised in the prologue, this is slow storytelling, carefully constructed, and all the better for it. These are people we come to know and want to meet again. It’s a novel that reads like a love letter both to Oslo and the Red Cross whose role was so important in helping the city pick itself back up again. I’m already looking forward eagerly to the second instalment but in the meantime Grant at 1streading’s blog has recommended The Half-Brother to bridge the gap.

Maclehose Press: London 2019 9780857059154 464 pages Paperback

Books to Look Out for in October 2019: Part One

This October sees a nicely varied selection of tempting new titles on offer including one by an author whose name I’ve been hoping to spot in the publishing schedules for some time. I loved Mary Costello’s quietly beautiful Academy Street, one of my books of 2014. Her new novel, The River Capture, is about a man whose solitary existence is interrupted when a young woman knocks at his door, presenting him and his family with a dilemma. ‘This is a novel about love, loyalty and the raging forces of nature. More than anything, it is a book about the life of the mind and the redemptive powers of art’ say the publishers promisingly.

Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel sounds as if it’s also about art, although possibly not its redemptive powers. The final work of a woman who committed suicide hangs in a Dublin gallery, a piece she’d intended as her shroud. A collector covets it so much he’s prepared to pay to have it stolen. Hegarty’s novel follows the thief he commissions, the curator who loves the piece and the man charged with recovering it. ‘The lives of these three damaged people, each evoked with a calm, moving sympathy reminiscent of Michael Cunningham or David Park, come together around the hauntingly strange Victorian painting’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely. I enjoyed Hegarty’s debut, Inch Levels, very much.

There’s something of a theme emerging here. In Jon Fosse’s The Other Name a widowed ageing painter is looking back on his life. Asle lives on the west coast of Norway and has just two friends – his neighbour and his gallerist who lives in Bjorgvin as does another Asle who is also an ageing painter leading a very different life. ‘Written in hypnotic prose that shifts between the first and third person, The Other Name calls into question concrete notions around subjectivity and the self. What makes us who we are? And why do we lead one life and not Cover imageanother?’ It’s the doppelganger idea that intrigues me with this one which is the first in a trilogy, apparently.

There’s geographical link rather than an artistic one to Lars Saabye Christensen’s Echoes of the City which has been hailed a Norwegian masterpiece. It charts the changes in an Oslo neighbourhood through its inhabitants as the city emerges from wartime austerity. ‘The minutes of the local Red Cross meetings give an architecture to the narrative of so many lives and tell a story in themselves, bearing witness to the steady recovery of the community. Echoes of the City is a remarkably tender observation of the rhythms and passions of a city, and a particular salute to the resilience of its women’ according to the publishers which sounds very inviting.

Years ago, in the very early days of this blog, I reviewed Susan Fortes’ Waiting for Robert Capa which introduced me to Gerda Taro, an unsung hero of war photography. Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica is also about Taro, telling her story through several characters attending her funeral held on what would have been her twenty-seventh birthday and placing it firmly in the context of the time. ‘Gerda Taro is at the heart of this kaleidoscopic novel but another of its main characters is the era itself, the 1930s, with economic depression, the rise of Nazism, hostility towards refugees in France, the century’s ideological warfare, the cultural ferment, and the ascendency of photography as the age’s quintessential art form’ say the publishers. I’m very pleased to see such attention devoted to Taro who, I was annoyed to discover, is barely given a mention at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre which we visited in Budapest.

Cover imageI’m sure Zadie Smith would have shared that annoyance. I’m rounding this first October batch off with Grand Union, her first published collection. Smith’s stories take us from the last day of an Antiguan immigrant’s life in 1959 to a meditation on the nature of desire to a policeman in disgrace, apparently. ‘Moving exhilaratingly across genres and perspectives, from the historic to the vividly current to the slyly dystopian, Grand Union is a sharply alert and prescient collection about time and place, identity and rebirth, the persistent legacies that haunt our present selves and the uncanny futures that rush up to meet us’ say the publishers which sounds good to me.

As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Part two to follow soon.

That’s it from me until the end of the week. I’m off to see a friend who lives in Holmfirth in Yorkshire where I believe there’s a spanking new indie bookshop…

Books to Look Out for in December 2017

Cover imageAs ever, there’s very little in the way of new titles to trouble your credit card with in December. Probably a relief given the wear and tear of Christmas shopping. Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body sounds intriguing, though. It’s about a daughter’s attempts to understand her mother’s life after she’s found dead at the foot of her stairs, and it’s structured along the lines of a medical report. ‘What emerges is a picture of life lived in the shadows, as well as an attempt to discover how and why her mother died. To make sense of her own grief Laura must piece her mother’s body back together and in doing so, she is forced to confront a woman silenced by her own mother and wronged by her husband’ according to the blurb.

Lily Tuck’s Sisters explores a second wife’s obsession with her husband’s first marriage. ‘Will the narrator ever equal the first wife intellectually and sexually, or ever forget the betrayal that lies between them? And what of the secrets between her husband and the first wife, from which the second wife is excluded? The daring and precise build-up to an eerily wonderful denouement is a triumph of subtlety and surprise’ say the publishers enticingly. Shades of Rebecca here, maybe.

In January I read Our Magic Hour, an extraordinarily impressive novel by an Australian author called Jennifer Down. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. Pulse Points is Down’s collection of short stories about people who ‘live in small dusty towns, glittering exotic cities and slow droll suburbs; they are mourners, survivors and perpetrators’ according to the publishers. Naturally, I’d have preferred a novel but if her short stories are only half as good as Our Magic Hour they’ll be a treat to savour.Cover image

Just one paperback to look out for – Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize earlier in the year. It’s the story of Ingrid Barroy, born into the only family who live on a tiny Norwegian island. When she grows up, Ingrid is sent to the mainland amidst great change for her country then tragedy strikes and she must do what she can to protect her remote home. ‘In detailed, quietly gripping prose, writer Roy Jacobsen and translators Don Bartlett and Don Shaw use a small canvas to tell a great, universal story’ say the Man Booker judges which sounds right up my street and all the more intriguing given that two translators worked on the novel.

That’s it for December, and for 2017 previews. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Already looking forward to what 2018 has to offer…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in October 2017

There’s a nicely varied bunch of paperbacks in the offing for October. I’ll start off with a book that’s been popular in my neck of the Twitter woods for quite some months. ‘What if I don’t want to hold your baby? – Can I date you without ever hearing about your divorce? – What can I demand of my mother now that I am an adult? – Is therapy pointless? – At what point does drinking a lot become a drinking problem? – Why does everyone keep asking me why I am not married?’ are some of the questions posed by Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up, about twenty-first century womanhood narrated by a thirty-nine-year-old childless woman battling through society’s expectations and her own desires. I haven’t enjoyed everything Attenberg’s written but her last novel, Saint Mazie, was excellent and that blurb reminds me a little of Claire Messud’s take on the same subject, The Woman Upstairs, which immediately piques my interest.

My next choice also met with a good deal of tweeted enthusiasm when it was published in hardback although I’ve haven’t see much about it lately. Yaa Gyasi’s debut, Homegoing, follows the fortunes of two sisters – one sold into slavery, the other a slave-trader’s wife – taking her readers across three continents and seven generations. Homegoing tells ‘the very story of America’ according to the publishers, a somewhat ambitious claim but it does sound well worth a read.

I’m not sure I can say that about Paul Auster’s Man Booker shortlisted chunkster, 4321 which weighs in at over 850 pages. It’s the story of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, born on March 3rd 1947, just a month after Auster’s own birth – make of that what you will. The novel tells four parallel Cover imagestories of Ferguson’s life. ‘Each version of Ferguson’s story rushes across the fractured terrain of mid-twentieth century America, in this sweeping story of birthright and possibility, of love and the fullness of life itself’ say the publishers which is all very enticing and I’m a fan of much of Auster’s writing but the size of this one is intimidating to say the least. Perhaps Annabel’s review over at Annabookbel will help you to make up your mind about this one.

Per Petterson’s Echoland explores childhood through twelve-year-old Arvid, on holiday with his family at his grandparents’ in Denmark. About to make the leap from childhood to adolescence, Arvid takes himself off exploring on his bike, escaping the household’s intergenerational tensions and glorying in his new-found freedom. ‘Echoland is an extraordinarily subtle and truthful snapshot of growing up, with an emotional depth that lingers long after its final pages’ say the publishers which sounds very much in Petterson territory to me. He writes the kind of beautifully clipped yet often lyrical prose of which I’m very fond.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler’s Perfume River looks at the fallout of the Vietnam War through the lens of one family, also beset by divisions. Although his father is close to death, Robert’s estranged brother refuses to come home. Instead a homeless stranger appears who will rock the entire family’s foundations. ‘Profound and poignant, Perfume River is an examination of relationships, personal choice, and how war resonates down the generations’ Cover imagesay the publishers.

My final choice, Gerard Reve’s The Evenings, is set in one of my favourite European cities which is one of its draws for me. It’s the story of ten evenings in the life of Frits van Egters as he walks the streets of post-war Amsterdam. That may seem a tad dull but it’s been voted one of the greatest novels of all time by the highly literary Dutch. Described by the publishers as ‘edgy, mesmerising, darkly ironical’ it sounds quite intriguing.

That’s it for October’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you want to know more and If you’d like to catch up with October’s new titles they’re here.

Books to Look Out for in October 2016

Cover imageBack from my travels in central Europe – more of that later in the week – with a look at what’s on offer in October’s publishing schedules. Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was one of my books of last year: elegant, beautifully expressed and deftly translated, this slim novella encapsulated the life of an ordinary man, revealing it to be far richer than you might expect. October sees the publication of The Tobacconist, a second novel by Seethaler in translation. Set in 1937 with Austria about to be annexed by Germany, it’s about seventeen-year-old Franz, apprenticed to a Viennese tobacconist, who forms a bond with a certain Mr Freud.

Like Seethaler, Per Petterson writes in beautifully clipped yet often lyrical prose. His new novel, Echoland, is about twelve-year-old Arvid on holiday with his family at his grandparents’ in Denmark. About to make the leap from childhood to adolescence, Arvid takes himself off exploring on his bike, escaping the household’s intergenerational tensions and glorying in his new-found freedom. ‘Echoland is an extraordinarily subtle and truthful snapshot of growing up, with an emotional depth that lingers long after its final pages’ say the publishers which sounds very much in Petterson territory to me.

In contrast, Sebastian Barry’s Days without End seems to step quite a way out of his usual territory heading off to Tennessee in the 1850s where Thomas McNulty has signed up for the US Army. Fleeing terrible hardship, he and his comrade John Cole fight first in the Indian Wars then the Civil War. ‘Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America’s past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten’ promise the publishers. Hoping for more of that lyrical writing I’ve enjoyed in Barry’s previous novels. nicotine

I wish I could say I’d also enjoyed Nell Zink’s novels but I’ve yet to read one so it may seem a little odd to include Nicotine in this preview. It’s ‘the clash between Baby-Boomer idealism and Millennial pragmatism, between the have-nots and want-mores’ in the book’s blurb that’s caught my eye. Penny Baker’s rebellion has taken the form of conventionality, the only option left open to her after an upbringing by Norm who runs a psychedelic ‘healing centre’. When Norm dies, Penny finds that the house he’s left her is occupied by a bunch of squatters united ‘in the defence of smokers’ rights’. Before too long she’s caught up in their cause, battling against her much older half-brothers to protect the fervent campaigners. It sounds great but I really must get around to the other two Zinks sitting on my shelf.

Surrounded by a good deal of brouhaha, not least because President Obama took it on holiday with him, is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Cora is a slave in Georgia, an outcast amongst her fellow slaves since childhood. When Caesar arrives from Virginia he tells her about the Underground Railroad offering a means of escape from her misery which Cora chooses to take. The novel follows her arduous journey through the South, a slave catcher snapping at her heels. ‘As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day’ say the publishers. A tough read, I’m sure, but not to be missed.

Cover imageEnding on a high note, at least I hope so, with Ali Smith’s Autumn which sounds a little experimental. I was defeated by the blurb for Smith’s last novel, How to Be Both, and it looks like I may well be again with this one. It is, apparently, ‘a stripped-branches take on popular culture, and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means’. It’s the first instalment in a quartet named Seasonal – ‘four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative. From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves’. There we are then.

That’s it for October. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in October 2015

Cover imageSad to say I’ve not found many titles that appeal in the October paperback lists. Lots of commercial big names but the more literary variety seem to be even further in the back seat than usual. I’ve reviewed only one so I’ll start with that. Per Petterson’s I Refuse seems even more sombre than his previous novels to me. Two men, close friends when they were young, meet briefly one morning by coincidence. Expensively dressed, Tommy has just parked his car when he spots Jim, shabby in his old reefer coat. Each recognises the other despite the thirty years since their last meeting. Tommy’s remarks about his expensive Mercedes are made perhaps more from embarrassment than anything else but they bite. The rest of the novel is an overlapping mosaic of memories framed within the events of that September day. It’s a fine novel – melancholic yet beautiful in its simplicity.

In Julia Franck’s West Nelly Senff is desperate to escape her life in East Berlin and the constant surveillance of the Stasi. She and her children are held in Marienfelde, a refugee processing centre and no-man’s-land between East and West where she meets several others hoping to make a new life – and John, a CIA man looking for possible Stasi spies. I read Back to Back two years ago, set just as the Wall was going up, and had mixed feelings about it but West sounds intriguing and I’m a sucker for novels which explore that East/West divide, particularly after visiting Berlin.

I’m afraid that’s all I have to offer apart from the welcome reissue of Louisa Young’s Anglo-Cover imageEgyptian trilogy: Baby Love, Desiring Cairo and Tree of Pearls. I read and enjoyed these three back in my bookselling days. None of them seemed to get the attention they deserved but I suspect Young’s publishers are hoping to gain a wider readership off the back of her successful First World War novels, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You and The Heroes’ Welcome. Angeline Gower is the star of all three, bringing up the daughter of her sister killed when riding pillion on a motorbike driven by Angeline whose belly dancing career took a tumble thanks to her own injuries. Her sister’s shady past threatens Lily’s safety when Angeline gets into trouble with the police. This may all sound a little improbable and that’s a particularly fluffy shade of pink in the background of the new jacket but, trust me, it’s a thoroughly entertaining set of novels with a nice edge of suspense running through it.

That’s it for October, perhaps the shortest preview so far this year. As ever, a click on any title apart from I Refuse will take you to Waterstones for a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with the decidedly meatier selection of hardbacks for the month they’re here.

I Refuse by Per Petterson (transl. Don Bartlett): Best read when cheerful

I RefuseYou don’t read Per Petterson for his cheeriness but I Refuse seemed even more sombre than usual to me. In it two men, close friends when they were young, meet briefly one morning by coincidence. Expensively dressed, Tommy has just parked his car when he spots Jim, shabby in his old reefer coat. Each recognises the other despite the thirty years since their last meeting. Tommy’s remarks about his expensive Mercedes are made perhaps more from embarrassment than anything else but they bite. The rest of the novel is an overlapping mosaic of memories framed within the events of that September day.

Neither Tommy nor Jim are from conventionally happy families: Jim’s mother has told him nothing about the father he’s never seen and Tommy takes on the role of comforting his sisters, protecting them from his violent father after his mother disappears. Each is very different from the other but their friendship is the brightest thing in their lives. When eventually Tommy turns on his father after a particularly nasty beating, his family is broken up and scattered. Tommy moves in with Jonsen, the mill owner for whom he eventually works. The friends see less of each other, their bond strained even further by Jim’s move to another town and the months he spends in a psychiatric hospital. The bedrock of their lives has shifted. By the time of their chance meeting Tommy is a wealthy trader, moving money around on his computer screen while Jim has been sick for a year, his benefits about to be cut off. Now in their fifties neither is happy, both wrestling with what their lives have become and unable to find peace.

Through carefully layered first person and third person narratives from Jim and Tommy, occasionally interspersed with the memories of others, Petterson meticulously reconstructs their friendship and their lives over the past thirty years. Many passages are introspective – sometimes claustrophobic in the way that spending too much time in your own head becomes – punctuated by occasional dramatic events: the novel opens with a man lurching in front of Jim’s car, the appalling beating after which Tommy finally turns on his father, the sound of ice cracking on the frozen pond on which the two friends skate. Show not tell is the order of the day – small details click into place and by the end of the novel you feel that you know these men and the pain they have suffered. This is very fine writing – melancholic yet beautiful in its simplicity. Petterson once again proves himself thoroughly deserving of the many prizes heaped upon him. And Don Bartlett’s translation is a triumph.

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson (transl. Don Bartlett): Growing up in 1960s Norway

Cover imageThose who’ve read and enjoyed Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses may be pleased to hear that his 1987 debut has been translated into English for the first time. Petterson is a master of the less is more writing style that I so admire and Don Bartlett has proved adept at keeping to the spirit of that in his translation – no mean feat for a man who also translates the wordy Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books.

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes is told from the point of view of young Arvid Jansen who some readers may have already met as a grown up in I Curse the River of Time. In the early 1960s Arvid and his family live in a working class Oslo suburb. His parents fight, his uncle has social aspirations but remains at a conveyor belt making toothbrushes soon to be joined by Arvid’s father, money is tight and drink a well-worn escape. I’ve seen it described as a short story collection but for me it read like a vividly episodic novella. Arvid has nightmares in which a tightly wrapped duvet becomes a nest of writhing snakes. He suddenly becomes aware of time passing and decides to stop the living room clock with disastrous consequences. He finds a way into a treasure trove of comics stored in a barn gaining the respect of the older boys and the nickname Death Diver. The Cuban Missile crisis looms large keeping him silent for four days. Along the way, idolisation of his father turns to a realisation of his fallibility and weaknesses. In clear, vibrant prose Petterson captures the world seen through the eyes of a young boy growing up into adolescence leaving me wanting to get my hands on a copy of I Curse the River of Time to find out what kind of 37-year-old Arvid turns out to be. Written with humour and great clarity, it’s a short but strikingly memorable read.

If your appetite’s been whetted for more fiction in translation I’d recommend a visit to Stu Allen’s blog. He’s a man who knows what he’s talking about.