If you want an introduction to literature from around the world, much of it hardly known to English speakers but often celebrated in its country of origin, you might like to keep an eye on Pushkin Press’s list. Willem Frederik Hermans’ An Untouched House is a fine example. Set towards the end of the Second World War, it sees an unnamed soldier stumble into an abandoned palatial house with farcical consequences.
Our Dutch narrator spends much of his time trying to decipher the orders fired at him by the man in charge of the shambling band of Red Army partisans to which he belongs. One summer’s day in a German spa town under bombardment, he sets of purposefully to fulfil yet another set of instructions he doesn’t understand, finding his way into a beautifully furnished house, abandoned yet with soup simmering in the kitchen. He convinces himself that he’s to check the house for booby traps but enjoys the luxury of a long bath, shaves to the sounds of bombs dropping and peruses the contents of the wardrobe as vehicles race past the house. Before long he’s settled in, passing himself off as the owner’s son when German officers politely requisition the house. Soon a routine is established and a cat adopted, then the house’s owner turns up.
Published in 1950 in his native Holland, Hermans’ book is a stark, funny and graphic exploration of the folly of war, a favourite theme of his so Cees Nooteboom’s enlightening Afterword tells us. In clipped, crisp prose, Hermans steers his readers through the confusion, chaos and constant threat that accompany battle into a brief haven of peace. The comic set-up, bordering on slapstick as our quick-thinking narrator adopts whatever persona gets him out of trouble, makes the ending of this brief novella all the more bleak. Bravo Pushkin Press for seeking out yet another international gem.
First published in Holland in 1947, Gerard Reve’s novel has been ranked by the Society of Dutch Authors as the Netherlands’ best novel of all time – quite a billing to live up to. It was much praised when published in the UK in hardback last year, popping up on all manner of publications’ books of the year lists. Spanning ten days over the Christmas period until New Year’s Eve 1946, The Evenings is about Frits, a twenty-three-year-old in the grips of soul-crushing boredom.
Frits lives with his parents who he both loves and belittles. His father is deaf, a casualty of child labour, and his mother spends her life in a state of anxious ignorance. His days are occupied by a mundane office job, his evenings by attempts to stave off the lassitude that threatens to consume him. He calls on his friends, gets blind drunk, is casually insulting then chides himself for it, inspects parts of his body minutely, spins stories – some dark, some ridiculous – and sleeps when all else fails, falling into nightmarish dreams. He’s haunted by a terrible fear of conversational gaps, turning frequently to the topic of baldness with which he’s mildly obsessed when one looms on the horizon while nervously checking how many hours are left before he can duck out.
Published just after the war, this is a bleak, darkly funny novel set in a city that has only recently been liberated from five years of Nazi occupation, rarely mentioned by Frits and his pals. Reve’s skill lies in the humour, underpinned with pathos, with which Frits’ chronic restlessness is portrayed. He has you grimacing with recognition as Frits wonders how long he can keep up a listening face for the raconteur incapable of editing his story’s dull details, then cringing at his pomposity until we learn that Frits – once a star pupil – dropped out of school early. Despite his superior attitude, he’s a failure alongside his friends, condemned to be an outsider. There are a few glimmers of self-knowledge: listening to tales of his parents’ generosity during the war Frits is shamed by his resentment of it but he’s soon back to disparaging them. The book ends on New Year’s Eve. Frits’ vain search for friends to share a celebration with after a joyless meal with his parents sets the mood for the following year which looks likely to be not so very different from the one that came before.
‘Check ignition and may God’s love be with you’ is the achingly familiar quote which prefaces Peter Terrin’s novella. It might be tempting to think that Monte Carlo was written after David Bowie’s death last year but it was originally published in Holland in 2014. Sometimes it’s a struggle to work out quite why an author has chosen a particular epigraph for their novel but in this case it couldn’t be more appropriate. Ending on the night of the first moon landing in 1969, Terrin’s novel tells the tale of a God-fearing mechanic who becomes obsessed with the actress whose life he saves.
Jack Preston is the chief mechanic of Sutton’s Formula One team. It’s the job he’s worked towards since he was thirteen, losing himself in tinkering with a local farmer’s Massey Ferguson two years after the death of his father. Jack and his team are readying themselves for the start of the 1968 Grand Prix but the crowd only has eyes for DeeDee, the young, delicately beautiful movie actress who has captured everyone’s hearts including that of the Prince whose wife was once a starlet. As DeeDee walks towards him, Jack catches the scent of fuel on the air, leaping towards her just in time to save her from a conflagration. DeeDee’s bodyguard drags them both away from the flames – DeeDee unscathed but Jack badly burnt. As Jack lies in hospital, a journalist comes to interview him, his answers haltingly translated by his nurse with her sketchy grasp of English. Jack arrives home a hero, not least to his wife, but as the year passes with no word from DeeDee, no acknowledgment of his sacrifice, Jack’s obsession with her deepens until, as the villagers’ admiration leaks away, he slides into madness.
From its vividly dramatic opening, this beautiful dreamlike novella had me in its grip. The first section is a cinematic intersplicing of images from the racetrack before the focus is switched to Jack and the aftermath of his dramatic rescue. Terrin’s writing is strikingly arresting: ‘Sunlight streams in through the vast windows of the reception area, reflected by the distant azure of the sea with a brilliance that verges on the audible’; ’A roar of laughter from the fat man punches a hole in the dignified serenity of the grandstand’. Jack’s increasingly delusional obsession is chillingly convincing, offset by the odd flash of humour. There’s a contemporary resonance in the portrayal of celebrity although DeeDee put me in mind of Princess Diana, several decades after the events portrayed in the novel. From the fragmentary structure which suits the novel beautifully to its oblique ending, this is a meticulously crafted piece of fiction. Terrin’s written four novels besides this one but it appears that only The Guard has been translated. Let’s hope MacLehose Press have plans to publish the other three.
This is my first Gerbrand Bakker. I’ve been aware of a good deal of interest and acclaim around his books for a while but somehow hadn’t got around to him. With its title and glorious blue-skied cover promising summer it seemed appropriate to pick up his new novel on one of the several miserably cold, wet and windy days that began our own June in the UK. It’s set largely on a Saturday in a small Dutch village but at its centre is Queen Julianna’s visit on June 17th 1969 nearly forty years before, a day of celebration which turned into tragedy.
It opens with the Queen reflecting on the many places she’s visited, the inappropriateness of a shrimp buffet at 10 a.m. and her irritation with the civil servant detailed to look after her not to mention the artist constantly sketching her in preparation for sculpting a bust. Just as she’s about to leave, ceremonial duty discharged, a young woman arrives clutching her two-year-old daughter. The Queen greets her, lightly touching the child’s cheek. Later that day an accident will leave the little girl’s family bereft. The rest of Bakker’s novel follows another sweltering June day largely through the Kaan family, beginning with Anna, the two-year-old’s mother – now a grandmother – who has regularly taken herself off to the straw loft on the rundown family farm since 1969, ignoring all attempts to talk her down. The latest trigger is her golden wedding anniversary celebration, a family trip to the zoo which proved to be far from an unalloyed joy.
There are no fancy descriptive passages littered with similes and metaphors in Bakker’s writing: it’s clean and plain but richly evocative for all that. His narrative shifts smoothly from character to character, unfolding events through internal monologues filled with memories interwoven with prosaic observations on family life and the state of the farm, the most effective of which is five-year-old Dieke’s with her questions teasing out what happened to her aunt. Small details slip in through these different points of view coalescing into a picture of that other June day. There’s a great deal of quiet humour underlying the heartache – the poor old dog is thrown into the ditch by just about every member of the family to cool him down, each of them thinking that they’re the only one who’s done it, while the Queen reflects ’I am sixty years old… …For more that twenty years I have been sitting in my official capacity on lavatories like this. How long can anyone bear it?’ How long indeed! I gather from Twitter that June’s reception has not been entirely positive but as it’s my first Bakker I’ve nothing to compare it with: suffice to say it won’t be my last. Compliments to the translator, too – my bet is that it’s harder to translate plain and – apparently – simple prose while retaining its subtlety than it is to produce a flowery interpretation but David Colmer pulls it off beautifully.