Tag Archives: Jamie Bulloch

One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig (transl. Jamie Bulloch): A wolf takes a walk

Cover imageImpossible not to comment on that title which makes the old bookseller in me wonder just how much it will be mangled in customer enquiries. I’m sure the publishers breathed a sigh of relief that Twitter have extended their 140-character limit, too. That said, it was the title which attracted me to this novella along with its setting largely in Berlin, one of my favourite European cities. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with interesting fiction. One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s first novel. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany.

Coming out of the east, the wolf turns west into a forest where no wolf has been seen since 1843, crossing many people’s paths as it moves closer and closer to Berlin. Caught up in a traffic jam on his way back from Poland to his Berlin flat, Tomasz snaps the wolf on his phone, a shot which will later seize the media by storm. Elisabeth and Micha, two runaways from close to the border, spot the wolf’s tracks deep in the forest. Charly who runs a kiosk with his partner in an up and coming area of Berlin becomes haunted by his faceout with the wolf. A woman, intent on burning her dead mother’s diaries, spots it in the distance. The whole of Berlin falls under its spell, obsessed with this interloper who inspires both fear and wonder. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t, in this carefully constructed intricate piece of fiction which offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one.

This is such a clever, beautifully structured novella which seems to me to hold a mirror up to the reunified Germany through the stories of the characters whose path the wolf crosses. Tomasz is an economic migrant, uncomfortable in Berlin and longing for home; the ageing remaining occupants of the apartment block he’s helping to gentrify in the old east Berlin are determined not to be ousted; Elisabeth’s mother bitterly resents her ex-husband for thwarting her artistic career while Micha’s father has taken to drink in the face of economic decline. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by the fragmented structure of this novella in which deftly handled coincidences abound. It’s a triumph – both absorbing and thought-provoking. I’d suggest putting aside any difficultly stumbling over that title in your local bookshop and grabbing yourself a copy.

Books to Look Out for in April 2018

Cover imageFewer new April titles have snagged my attention than I’d hoped, although there were so many at the beginning of the year that may not be such a bad thing. I’ll start with the Gun Love by Jennifer Clement, author of the impressive Prayers for the Stolen, published in the UK a few years ago. Fourteen-year-old Pearl lives in the front seat of a wrecked car in a Florida trailer park while her mother lives in the back. Under the driver’s seat sits a gun given to Margot by her boyfriend, a regular visitor to the back seat. ‘Gun Love is a hypnotic story of family, community and violence. Told from the perspective of a sharp-eyed teenager, it exposes America’s love affair with firearms and its painful consequences’ say the publishers. I remember circling Prayers for the Stolen for some time, expecting unremitting grimness given that it was about kidnapped girls but it surprised me, and I’m hoping for the same with this one.

Diana Evans’ Ordinary People is set in South London, far from Pearl and Margot’s trailer park. Melissa is sinking after the birth of her baby while Michael fails to remain faithful to her. Further out into the suburbs, Stephanie is happy with Damian and their children until the death of his father seems to pull the carpet from underneath him. ‘Set against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s historic election victory, Ordinary People is an intimate, immersive study of identity and parenthood, sex and grief, friendship and aging, and the fragile architecture of love’ say the publishers enticingly.

Sarah Françoise’s Stories We Tell Ourselves is about another marriage in trouble, or perhaps a whole series of them. Joan and Frank have spent three decades in an unfinished house in the French Alps. Frank is involved in an epistolary affair with his German ex-girlfriend, and Joan is losing patience but it’s Christmas. They’re about to be visited by their three children, all wrestling with their own relationship difficulties. ‘Written with a rare precision and insight, the author explores the thorniness of familial love and its capacity to endure with warmth, wit and disarming honesty’ say the publishers, a promise which if it’s fulfilled could result in an Cover imageentertaining read.

No prizes for guessing the subject matter of Joanna Walsh’s Break.up but what’s interesting is the way in which Walsh approaches her subject, apparently blending fiction with essays on all manner of things according to the blurb. Walsh’s book is rooted in the idea that the internet has resulted in ex-partners becoming near inescapable. After an affair conducted mostly online, her narrator travels across Europe relying purely on chance to shape her journey. ‘From Rome to Budapest, Freud to Foucault, algorithms to nostalgia, this is a stimulating, original work which dismantles what we know of love, and how we make art from it, and finds a new form and language for the way we love now’ say the publishers. Walsh writes both fiction and non-fiction so may well be able to pull off what sounds like an ambitious piece of writing. She’s also the person behind #ReadWoman.

Lucy Wood’s lovely first novel, Weathering, was a 2015 favourite for me. I still haven’t got around to reading her much-praised collection Diving Belles and Other Stories but that hasn’t stopped me lusting after her new one, The Sing of the Shore, comprising stories set in Cornwall. ‘These astonishing, beguiling stories of ghosts and shifting sands, of static caravans and shipwrecked cargo, explore notions of landscape and belonging, permanence and impermanence, and the way places can take hold and never quite let go’ according to the publishers. Weathering was striking for its gorgeous, lyrical writing raising expectations for more of the same.

Cover image I’m ending with Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the 21st Century, one of the lengthiest titles I’ve come across in some time. The lure here is its Berlin backdrop and its translation by Jamie Bulloch whose work I’ve come to admire. A wolf crosses the border from Poland into Germany, making its way to Berlin. Schimmelpfennig’s novel traces the lives of the people whose path the wolf crosses, from the construction worker who photographs it to the woman who burns her mother’s diaries on a Berlin balcony. ‘Those who catch sight of the wolf see their own lives reflected, and find themselves searching for a different path in a cold time. This first novel of Germany’s most celebrated contemporary playwright is written in prose of tremendous power and precision’ say the publishers which sounds very promising.

That’s it for April’s new titles. A click on any title that takes your fancy will lead to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift (translated by Jamie Bulloch): Not as sweet as you might think

the-empress-and-the-cakeGiven that two jaunts that have taken me to Vienna this year, Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake seemed an obvious choice. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with excellent fiction. Part of Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, Stift’s novella comes beautifully packaged in delicate pink and cream but beware: as we all know from the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales are often far from sweet and this one’s no exception.

Our unnamed narrator finds herself accosted by a black-clad woman, not unlike the Empress Elisabeth, perusing the delights of a Viennese patisserie window. A gugelhupf is far too much for her, would the young lady like to share one? Our narrator reluctantly agrees, then Frau Hohenembs, as she introduces herself, explains that even half is too much, insisting that her new acquaintance comes back to her apartment for coffee and cake. Once there, our narrator meets Ida, plump and dressed in what looks a little like a doctor’s coat. Sadly for her, this incident triggers a binging episode, fifteen years after she thought she’d rid herself of her eating disorder. A few days later, hearing rustling outside her door, she opens it to finds Ida encamped in her hallway – Frau Hohenembs is insisting on her presence. As she becomes entangled in Frau Hohenembs’ increasingly baroque schemes, horrified as her persecutor filches bits and pieces from the city’s museums including the royal cocaine syringe, she loses her battle with food, caught up in  grim cycle of binging and purging.

Stift’s novella is a thought-provoking tale of madness, delusion and addiction, an exploration of the way in which the mind is able to construct elaborate and convincing scenarios for itself. Her writing is vivid, often graphically harrowing but there’s a rich vein of dark humour running through it. The coked-up dog and chorusing parrots add a particularly striking dash of lunatic comedy to the proceedings. Not a toothsome tale then but certainly an original and disturbing one which will stay with me for quite some time.

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) November 2015

Cover imageJust two books worth recommending that I’ve read but not reviewed this month. Thanks are due to Jacqui at JacquiwinesJournals for pointing me in the direction of one of them – Daniela Krien’s Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything, set in 1991 in what was still the GDR during the summer before German reunification. Johannes has taken sixteen-year-old Maria home where she’s remained, living with him in the top two rooms of the old family farmhouse. Her mother’s divorced and her father is about to marry his pregnant nineteen-year-old Russian girlfriend. Maria stops going to school, reads The Brothers Karamazov and learns how to cook, settling into family life until she catches the eye of forty-year-old Henner on the neighbouring farm. Soon they’re embroiled in a violently passionate affair. The backdrop of a GDR emerging from years of separation with its neighbour amidst all the conflicted feelings of joy and resentment that brings are beautifully expressed in this lovely novella translated by Jamie Bulloch who seems to have an eye for interesting German fiction. A click on the title will take you to Jacqui’s very thoughtful review. Cover image

Every so often I like to read a bit of straightforward, neatly structured, well-written, good old commercial fiction. Flagging energy levels and murky weather provided the trigger this month and Susan Elliot Wright’s The Secrets We Left Behind filled the gap nicely. It takes the form of a dual narrative – one set in 1976 when our narrator was sixteen and living in a Hastings squat after her mother died; the other in 2009 when she’s just become a grandmother and is suddenly faced with disclosing the eponymous secrets. It’s all very deftly handled, deserving of the Maggie O’Farrell comparison adorning its jacket, although not quite a match. That would be a tall order, indeed – O’Farrell’s the mistress of the dual narrative, and – so Twitter tells me – she has a new novel out next summer. Oh joy!

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (transl. Jamie Bulloch): Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?

Look Who's BackAdolf Hitler wakes up with a dreadful headache. He’s a little bemused to find himself lying in what seems to be a wasteland. He picks himself up and makes his way to a news kiosk where he’s astonished to find that it’s August 30th 2011. He’s at a loss to know what’s happened but the newspaper seller whose stand is frequented by media types spots an opportunity. This guy, who appears to be a method actor, is such a dead ringer for the Fürhrer all he needs are a few introductions to the right people. Before long Hitler’s spot supporting comedian Ali Gagmez on TV is so successful that he gets his own show. There are a few hitches with the contract – just what is his real name – but soon he’s the current YouTube phenomenon. The trouble is, nobody quite gets it: they think he’s particularly edgy stand up comic – he thinks he’s launching a campaign to restart National Socialism.

Satire can often go horribly wrong, particularly if you choose to narrate your novel through the voice of one of the 20th century’s greatest villains, but Timur Vermes carries it off beautifully, chucking lampoons in all directions and managing to hit his mark nearly all the time. Celebrity culture, modern politics, the internet, TV, social media, tabloid newspapers, binge drinking – they all get a bashing. Hitler spends much of his time in a state of furious astonishment at the idiocy of the modern world and the parlous state of the German people, led by a woman for god’s sake. When he’s exposed to modern TV for the first time he’s amazed by its vacuous nature; he fears there must be a bread shortage when he’s given a granola bar and finally sees the point of those pesky ringtones when his secretary assigns him The Ride of the Valkyries. Like all good satire, there are sharp observations within the jollity – Hitler has trouble with his email address as so many people have already nabbed the appropriate ones, he’s gratified to find so few mixed race children despite the Turkish immigrant population, after the initial wonder of the ‘Internetwork’ he’s quick to spot a propaganda tool. At times he’s horribly plausible, and of course he loves animals and children. The novel ends on a warning note – maybe there are some people who think he wasn’t all bad. It’s hard to keep blistering satire up for well over three hundred pages even if it is punctuated by slapstick hilarity and, for me, the novel was a little too long. That said, no one could accuse Vermes of being anything but original. Hats off to translator Jamie Bulloch, not just for an excellent translation but for adding a short essay on the German historical and political context for the novel.

Not surprisingly, Look Who’s Back caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published. It stormed up the bestseller charts and stayed there for 70 weeks, apparently. It’s a brave author who tackles a taboo subject in the way Vermes has – I’m British but I felt a little squirmy at times. What do you think? Are there any subjects you’d consider completely verboten?