Tag Archives: Harvill Secker

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones: An homage to Nabokov

Cover imageTwo 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!

June by Gerbrand Bakker (transl. David Colmer): Deceptively simple

JuneThis 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.

The Gracekeepers: A rattling good tale, beautifully told

Cover imageThere’s been a great deal of eager anticipation for Kirsty Logan’s debut in my neck of the Twitter woods. Not the rather over-excited ‘whoop, whoop’ that can be a bit trying – more a steady hum, some of it coming from a friend who runs the Bristol Short Story Prize whose opinion I trust. Logan has already published The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, a much-praised short story collection – the press release for The Gracekeepers quotes a reviewer in the Independent comparing her to Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson which must make you come over all hot and cold if you’re a newly published author. In her strikingly imaginative novel, land has been reduced to far-flung islands set in a sea traveled by evangelical revivalists, the military and the Excalibur circus.

It begins with a vivid scene – a woman dances with a bear mirrored by ‘a small girl and a small bear, hands and paws interlinked’ – remembered by Callanish, a gracekeeper who tends the dead in a world divided into ‘damplings’ who travel the seas, despised by ‘landlockers’ who inhabit the islands. One day, the Excalibur lands on Callanish’s island needing her services for an acrobat who perished in a desperate storm. Excalibur is all glitter and tat. Its ringmaster has his eyes set on restoring the family reputation, setting up his son with North, the young girl who dances with her bear, entrancing the landlockers with their funeral waltz. They’re a discontented company – the clowns are intent on subversion, the ‘glamours’ love to gossip, neither North nor Ainsel want to marry each other and everyone dislikes the ringmaster’s wife who flaunts her pregnancy at every opportunity. North has one priority: keeping her beloved bear safe and happy. When she and Callanish meet, each is drawn to the other but there are many sea miles to sail and stories to be told before they will see each other again.

Logan had me from the first page with her gorgeous use of language: ‘a trio of tattooed ladies, hair bright as petals’ describes the ‘glamours’; ‘Dreams were still caught on the insides of her eyelids’ for the barely awake Callanish; ‘Waves chuttered and shwacked against the moorings of Callanish’s house’. Beautiful descriptive passages summon up this flooded world which seems to have come about after a cataclysm. There are some nods to discontents and problems in our own world: some islands are notable for their ruined tower blocks, North is shown a city sunk far beneath the sea and the clowns – Cash, Dough and Dosh – frequently lampoon bankers playing upon landlockers’ resentments. But this isn’t your common or garden dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel, it’s more a beautiful fantasy which plays with myth and folktales. The press release has a short interview in which Logan describes her themes as ‘non-traditional family, love, belonging, autonomy, home and hunger (both physical and emotional)’  –  an ambitious list, but she succeeds in exploring them all. It’s also a rattling good tale, and that cover is a thing of beauty.

If you’d like to read another review of The Gracekeepers, nip over to Word by Word.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (transl. Martin Aitkin): Quietly low-key but curiously gripping

This should be WrittenDon’t you just love that jacket? Having sounded off about the ghastliness of the Aren’t We Sisters? cover a few weeks ago I had to mention it. Brightly coloured, eye-catching and surprisingly well suited to what’s inside it’s perfect, well for me at least. This Should be Written in the Present Tense is a quiet, low-key, curiously gripping novel in which events are so rare they stand out like the vibrant streaks of colour that adorn its jacket.

It’s narrated by twenty-year-old Dorte who has moved into a bungalow just outside Copenhagen where she has a place at university. Somehow she never gets around to buying any curtains, just as she never seems to get around to attending lectures. It’s not as if she has much else to do – she sleeps much of the day, is insomniac at night, remembers her relationship with Per and her welcome into his house by his parents, then her life with his cousin Lars. She talks to her Auntie Dorte for whom she’s named, phones her parents, goes shopping, enjoys the kindness of strangers and bumps into an old study group colleague. Aimless and adrift, she knows what she should be doing but just can’t seem to do it. Life, it seems, is something that happens to other people.

I’m left scratching my head as to quite why this book, full of prosaic exchanges and torpor, is quite so gripping while at the same time hoping that Martin Aitken is busy at work translating Helle Helle’s other novels – she’s one of Denmark’s most respected modern novelists, apparently, but this is the first of her books to be translated into English. There’s a hint in the title and on the first page that Dorte is the one writing the novel but this isn’t a tricksy book full of meta-fictional cleverness, although perhaps it’s me that’s not clever enough to have spotted it. Instead it’s a book that gets under your skin – its drifting, melancholic narrator curiously engaging and oddly compelling.

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.