Tag Archives: Maclehose Press

The Tree of the Toraja by Philippe Claudel (transl. Euan Cameron): Death, grief and hope

Cover imageIf you haven’t yet come across Philippe Claudel’s books you may know his work from I Loved You So Long starring Kristin Scott Thomas. Ranging from Parfums, a sensuous fragrance memoir, to Monsieur Linh and His Child, one of the saddest pieces of fiction I’ve read, his writing is as elegantly understated as his movies, a style which I find immensely appealing. His latest novel, The Tree of the Toraja, is an exploration of death and grief through the voice of a filmmaker who has lost his producer and best friend.

Our unnamed narrator begins his meditative journey with an account of the lengthy funeral rites of the Toraja, an Indonesian tribe on the island of Sulawesi where he’s been on holiday. When a child dies, the Toraja carefully place its corpse within an incision made in a tree so that the tree’s bark will heal and enclose the body. On his return, our narrator finds a message from his best friend, Eugène, announcing his cancer diagnosis. Six months later Eugène is dead. Our narrator talks to philosophers, doctors and scientists about the ways in which we open ourselves to death. He meets his ex-wife every week in the same hotel room, thinks about a new film while watching the tenants of the apartment block opposite, speculating about the young woman who seems happy to live in the public gaze, all the time remembering Eugène and their many conversations. This brief, beautiful novella ends with an unexpected new start for our narrator and the beginning of his first project without Eugène.

It would be easy to cast Claudel as the unnamed narrator given that both are filmmakers and novelists of a similar age but my brief spate of googling became a distraction from the thoughtfulness of this exploration of death, grief and how we respond to it. Suffice to say that it’s an intensely personal piece of writing. Claudel’s prose is characteristically quiet but arresting, often painterly in its evocation:

We spent our evenings drinking vinho verde in the neighbourhood cafés of the Bairro Alto, nibbling at plump violet olives and eating sardines that had been cooked on grills in small yards where the walls were covered in azulejo tiles

We who live on are enveloped by the whispers of our ghosts

Bodies fade like flowers in vases; their corollas droop one day then slump in an irreversible destruction of their colours and their scents

There are striking metaphors throughout: our relationship with our bodies is compared to a love affair; our lives to books – some neatly handwritten with smooth blank pages, others with loose, torn leaves and a multitude of deletions. But there’s more to this piece of writing than its gorgeous prose. Both a philosophical investigation into that which faces us all and a beautiful meditation which ultimately ends with acceptance and hope, Claudel’s novella is a quiet, thought-provoking triumph.

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.

The House with the Stained-glass Window by Żanna Słoniowska (transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones): A tale of three cities

Cover imageŻanna Słoniowska’s novel is set in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, known as Lwów when it was part of Poland after the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, then Lvov when it was in Soviet hands from the end of the Second World War until 1991. The House with the Stained-Glass Window tells the story of this fractured, fractious, beautiful place through the lives of four generations of women whose history mirrors that of the city.

Marianna is a mezzo-soprano with a voice so evocative that it summons up the very spirit of his country for Mykola, the set designer at the Lviv Opera. She’s the child of Aba who arrived in the city from Leningrad shortly after the war, her artistic ambitions thwarted by the tyrannical Great-Granma whose hysterics frequently rock the house. Marianna has a daughter who guides us through the history of these four generations. Great-Granma has seemingly never got over the abduction of her husband in 1937, taken for interrogation and never returned. Having fallen out with both Aba and Marianna, she’s taken to her room. In 1988, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, Marianna is shot by a sniper while singing at a nationalist march, swiftly becoming the poster girl for the independence movement. Aba steps in to raise her young daughter who will navigate her own way through the thorny pathways of both her family’s history and that of her city, helped by Mykola who was both her mother’s lover and the chronicler of Lviv’s unofficial history. That will have to stand as a synopsis for this novel although it’s a good deal more complicated than that.

Mariana’s daughter unfolds the story of this family who live on the first floor of a house whose stained-glass window encapsulates Lviv’s history. She’s a lively narrator – wildly imaginative and very funny at times – open to Mykola’s history lessons, the last of which is a tour of Lviv telling the stories that some of its inhabitants might prefer untold. Stuffed with lovingly vivid descriptions of the city, Słoniowska’s novel has a framework which works well although the occasional abrupt switches from one timeline to another can be disconcerting. You’ll need to have your wits about you to keep track – Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ brief chronology and explanatory note which preface the book come in very handy for that. It’s a novel that worked for me but it’s a little niche. If you’re not interested in Central Europe and its history, I suspect it’s not one for you.

If you don’t hear from me on Friday I’ll be in Budapest, a little closer to Lviv than I am now. H is in the midst of an Aged P crisis which may mean I’m still here in Bath. We’ll see. The odds are currently in our favour…

Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry (transl. Alison Anderson): A Flaubert homage

Cover imageIt’s been a very long time since I read Flaubert’s tale of a doctor’s wife, bored to tears by provincial life and seeking diversion in adultery, but not so long since I read Sophie Divry’s slightly eccentric debut, The Library of Unrequited Love which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s always a risky business when an author writes their own version of a much-loved classic but Divry acquits herself beautifully with this story of M.A., born in the 1950s to parents who’ve lifted themselves up a notch in the world.

M.A. begins life on a housing estate on the outskirts of a small town near Lyon. She’s a bright student, if shy and given to bouts of ennui. She takes up a course of business studies in the city where she meets and falls in love with François, an anxious young man who fails at his studies but later discovers a talent for selling insurance. She finds herself a management position, then the puts a foot on the property ladder. Before too long the couple have two children and are settled into a detached house, enjoying occasional dinner parties and annual holidays when M.A. at last relaxes, for it is she that carries the domestic burden. Boredom inevitably rears its head resulting in a passionate affair with a colleague, ending only when he is transferred. A different phase of life begins – a new child, then the departure of the older children. Soon a realisation of ageing hits home bringing with it therapy, yoga lessons and endless phone calls to her best friend. Solace arrives in the form of grandchildren, then retirement must be dealt with together with the gradual winding down of mind and body, then widowhood. M.A.’s unremarkable life ends, as it does for many, with a fall. Now it is her children who are first in line.

The idea of following a life from cradle to grave in fiction is very appealing. Robert Seethaler did it exquisitely in A Whole Life and Divry also manages it beautifully. Her writing is perceptive and insightful, laced with a gentle humour. Many readers will recognise M.A.’s experiences: the longed-for freedom of student life then the misery of loneliness before making friends; the conviction that one’s relationship is uniquely special and what child hasn’t indulged in the revenge of imagining their distraught parents at their funeral when sent to their room? Throughout it all, Divry quietly emphasises the cyclical nature of life, frequently foreshadowing M.A.’s future and her repetition of her mother’s admonishments to her own children who will later help her through her old age just as she helped her mother. This is an expertly executed novel, vividly capturing the stages of a life each of us can’t help thinking of as exclusive to ourselves as we pass through them. As with Flaubert’s Bovary, M.A. is bedevilled by her expectations, deftly summed up in her feelings of anti-climax after a meticulously prepared dinner party:

‘M.A. had failed to understand that what fills a life is a way of being, the present tense of the sentence in which one is breathing, not an event situated in the future which, after consumed, will leave us standing disappointed in front of the refrigerator.’

Many of us could learn something from that as we feverishly anticipate the next big thing.

Monte Carlo by Peter Terrin (translated by David Doherty): Sliding into obsession and madness

Cover image‘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.

Bookshops by Jorge Carrión (translated by Peter Bush): An anorak’s delight

Cover imageI suppose it was inevitable that I’d read and review Bookshops having worked in one for over a decade and spent a great deal of time in many others, both in my own country and abroad. It’s quite some time since I could call myself a bookseller but I still tidy up those table displays, surreptitiously move misfiled books to where they should be and scan shelves tutting to myself when significant titles are missing. Jorge Carrión isn’t a bookseller, current or ex, but he has spent an inordinate amount of time in bookshops across the world and has a great deal of interest to say about them.

Carrión begins what he describes as an essay by explaining that his inspiration was Stephan Zweig’s short story ‘Mendel the Bibliophile’ about an itinerant bookseller, a Russian Jew, with the gift of a prodigious memory which, as every bookseller knows, is an essential tool of the trade. From there he takes his readers on a journey around the world, dropping in on his favourite bookshops, from his home town of Barcelona to Buenos Aires, Sydney to Tangier, Paris to Denver, Colorado. It’s stuffed with anecdote, eruditely discursive, full of bookselling history and passionate in its tone. Carrión explores bookshops as reflections of society and engines of social change, as places of resistance, cultural centres, meeting places and havens. San Francisco’s celebrated City Lights and Shakespeare and Company in Paris both crop up frequently but many far more obscure bookshops make an appearance too. Carrión frames his bookshop thumbnails with often fascinating historical context, from Christina Foyle’s trip to Stalinist Russia to negotiate a deal for books slated for burning to a short disquisition on paper making which takes us from China to Turkey.

For those who find themselves drawn into bookshops wherever they are, even in countries where there’s no hope of understanding what’s between the covers, this book is a joy. Carrión manages to steer clear of fetishizing bookshops – just – exploring the idea of them as museums and tourist attractions (City Lights and Shakespeare and Company again) and suggesting that ‘style is more important than content in the global circulation of the image’ bringing to mind all those pictures of beautiful or outlandish bookshops which do the rounds on Buzzfeed and the like. He ends on a pleasingly optimistic note about the future of the bookshop, albeit a very different future from its history. A nice touch would have been to include a separate chapter on the bookshop in literature although there are references and quotations woven throughout. It won’t suit everyone – truth be told I suspect you have to be something of an anorak to enjoy it as much as I did – but it might make the more obsessive and literary booky person in your circle happy this Christmas which I’m sure is what its publishers are hoping you’ll think.

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay: One big happy family

Cover imageElizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air ranks alongside Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved as one of the finest contemporary novels I’ve read. Notable for its beautiful descriptions of the natural world, Hay’s novel shows a similar perception in its portrayal of relationships as Hustvedt’s. It’s one of those novels I pressed into the hands of friends and family after I read it. Unsurprisingly, then, I was eagerly anticipating His Whole Life, which turned out to be an equally nuanced coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of the 1995 referendum on the separation of Quebec from Canada and its aftermath.

Jim is ten years old when the novel opens as he, his Canadian mother and his American father make their way from New York City to Canada where his uncle and aunt have a lakeside house. For Jim it’s an welcoming place: he’s reunited with Duke, the ancient dog he adores and escapes the opprobrium that follows him around the school playground. For Nan, his sharp-tongued mother, it’s an annual homecoming making years of living in a marriage which is all but coming apart bearable. For George, it feels like a prison, uncomfortable and unsettling. When her brother and sister-in-law are killed in a car crash nine months later, Nan decides to go back to the lake telling George that she will stay until Duke dies having one lost dog on her conscience already, and takes Jim with her. Shortly after they’ve settled in a piratical figure arrives, reminding Jim of his beloved Treasure Island. Lulu is Nan’s dearest childhood friend, unseen for years and now in the midst of the latest in a seemingly endless series of spats with her brother who runs the family farm. An idyllic summer begins for Jim in which he has the company of not one but two dogs and the devoted attention of two women who endlessly chew the fat about everything, from Lulu’s disinheritance to the question of Québécois independence. Hay’s novel follows Jim and his mother over seven difficult years as the bond between them deepens.

‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ asks ten-year-old Jim from the back seat of the family car. This is the question that will recur throughout Hay’s richly complex and intimate portrait of an extended family, each time revealing more about its characters. It’s a novel deeply conscious of the past and the far-reaching consequences of our actions, nostalgic almost elegiac in tone with the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation at its heart. Hay has a beautifully honed turn of phrase: ‘Nan has once told Jim how restful it was to be immersed in a past that was over’; Nan thinks of her young son ‘What a moody stripling he was, Christopher Robin as Job’; Lulu and her brother are ‘always fighting leftover fights’. Jim is a memorable character, too mature for his years as the children of troubled marriages so often are, used to overhearing too many adult conversations. If I have a criticism it is that the splits within the family were a little too neatly mirrored by the political divide between the two sides of the referendum question but Canadian readers may beg to differ. Altogether a thoroughly absorbing and thought-provoking novel, beautifully expressed. I have hopes that it will snag the Baileys Prize judges’ attention.

Three Light-Years: A love story

Cover imageJacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal commented on my books to look out for in December post that Three Light-Years’ jacket seemed to fit its synopsis well: a grey, rainy day in which a woman is looking over her shoulder at a man, her expression a little solemn but unreadable. We can’t see his but it should be somewhat more puzzled than hers to really fit the book’s contents. Three Light-Years is a love story although not a conventional one: a novel about relationships in all their many permutations.

Claudio Viberti is a doctor, an internist specialising in geriatrics. His best friend works in paediatrics and it is here that he meets Cecilia, a doctor from A & E whose son is suffering from an eating disorder. Forty-three and still living in the same apartment building as his mother, his ex-wife and her new family, Viberti – as he is known – longs for a child. Distracting Mattia with a conversation about James Bond, he manages to get the boy to eat and so begins an odd relationship. Viberti will rarely see Mattia over the novel’s three-year span but he will have lunch with Cecilia almost every day: boiled vegetables for him, a sandwich for her. Their relationship progresses in fits and starts. Viberti soon knows that he’s in love with Cecilia but her feelings are more ambivalent. Her divorce is more recent than his and she’s consumed with worry about its effects on Mattia. Meanwhile, Viberti realises that his eighty-three-year-old mother may be demented but he and his ex-wife, still devoted to Marta, have very different ways of dealing with it. Into this convoluted relationship walks a third party, completely by accident: Cecilia’s sister, Silvia.

We know very early on that this subtle, often funny, sometimes infuriating love story is being told by Viberti’s son. He’s an unobtrusive narrator, popping up infrequently as if to remind us of his existence as Canobbio’s narrative shifts between Viberti, Cecilia, then Silvia, backwards and forwards over the three years. Canobbio – and his translator, Anne Milano Appel – has a sharp eye for striking phrases: ‘A man hidden behind a column, observing the world’ perfectly describes Viberti’s reserve as he looks out into the café hoping for a glimpse of Cecilia as does ‘guilt was the alimony Viberti paid to Giulia’. Family relationships with their usual complexities are made vivid through memories, a strong theme in the novel. There are times when you want to give Viberti and Cecilia a good shaking but the gentle humour with which Canobbio recounts their seemingly endless misunderstandings, angst ridden speculations and occasional connections, lightens the mood. Viberti is particularly well drawn – excruciatingly socially awkward, always wanting to do the right thing and often unsure of himself. Not one for those who want a conventional love story but I enjoyed it. Nicely ambivalent ending, too, much like life.

This is my last review for 2015. The rest of December will be taken up with books of the year – far too many as ever – looking forward to January and, of course, Christmas. Can’t be avoided, I’m afraid….

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood: Memory and the tricks we play on it

Cover imageThis is the first novel I’ve read by the famously reclusive Nobel Prize-winning Patrick Modiano. He’s been on my list since I read Victoria’s excellent piece on him at Tales from the Reading Room. He also made a little cameo appearance in The Red Notebook which I read a little while ago and when So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood arrived it seemed that this year was set to be my Modiano year. It’s a compelling, unsettling novella about memory and the tricks it plays on us, or rather the tricks we play on it.

Author Jean Daragane is startled from the silence of his Paris flat by a phone call. It’s at least three months since the phone last rang, disturbing his carefully maintained solitude. The caller, who identifies himself as Gilles Ottolini, has rung to tell Daragane that his address book has been found. Suspicious at Ottolini’s slightly threatening tone, Daragane agrees to meet him in a café. He’s hardly missed the address book – rarely needs such a thing – and wonders if he should ignore the appointment. When he turns up Ottolini is there with a young, ethereally beautiful woman who calls herself Chantal. Ottolini has found a number for Guy Torstel in Daragane’s address book and wants to pick his brains about the man whose name appeared in his first novel several decades ago. It seems that Daragane’s suspicions may be justified, and all the more so when Chantal rings him at 2 am then turns up with Ottlolini’s ‘dossier’ on Torstel. Odd overlaps between the couple’s story and Daragane’s past emerge. He begins to remember the woman he lived with for a year as little boy, the parade of shady figures who visited her house. What happened there? How did his ‘fickle parents’ come to leave him with Annie who several people knew had been imprisoned? Who were the people who visited at odd hours? Modiano leaves a whole string of questions unanswered in this novella, hardly longer than a short story but packing a powerful punch.

Modiano’s book is quietly understated. Its unsettling tone and shifting narrative leaves the reader constantly on edge wondering what Ottolini and Chantal are up to, then what happened to Daragane as a child. Daragane is the quintessential unreliable narrator, frequently reiterating how flimsy his memories are: drifting ‘away like bubbles of soap or fragments of a dream that vanished on waking’; ‘a faraway voice picked up late at night on the radio’. He can barely remember the first novel he wrote let alone the details of what may have happened over forty years ago but as he tells us ‘In the end, we forget the details of our lives that embarrass us or are too painful’. It’s a perplexing novel, one that will stay with me for some time, I think. It’s not a book to be read if you’re hoping for a solution to a mystery – gripping though that is – more one to read for the elegant beauty of its writing and its reflections on what we remember and what we choose not to.

Birth of a Bridge: All human life is here

Cover imageI’d not heard of Maylis de Kerangal before I came across Birth of a Bridge which says more about my ignorance than her obscurity as the novel comes garlanded with praise from all and sundry. It also won the 2010 Prix Médicis, adding to several other literary prizes awarded to her. All this is should stem my self-congratulation at having read more fiction in translation this year– I’ve obviously got a long way to go. It’s an ambitious novel that follows the construction of a massive bridge which will join two disparate communities in the back of beyond

The bridge is the brainchild of Coca’s new mayor, John Johnson – aka the Boa – whose trip to Dubai has turned his head. He plans to use it to bring ethanol in from the countryside, earning Coca gleaming green credentials. Even the international consortium which has won the bid to design the bridge is called Pontoverde. The towering red construction with its six traffic lanes, he believes, will catapult his bright new city into the future, burnishing his own reputation as it does so. Workers from across the globe flock to the site including Georges Diderot, engineer and veteran of many grand projects who will run this one, and Summer Diamantis, the only woman on the management team. The bridge takes nearly a year to complete during which affairs will be had, people will die, a way of life will be threatened, strike action averted and an opening ceremony conducted.

De Kernagal’s style takes some getting used to – I nearly gave the novel up in its early stages. Its rat-a-tat pace with few paragraphs makes it hard to read slowly but reading too fast means details missed. It’s this pace, however, which gives it an overwhelming feeling of a mass of people working at a furious lick. It brought to mind those astonishing pictures of workers in Sebastião Salgado’s epic series of photographs, grubbing away in a gold mine. It’s also very cinematic: perhaps it was the mention of ‘a modern-day Babel’ in the book’s blurb but that film popped into my head several times. Back stories are cleverly woven through the project’s progress – from the main protagonists to a doorman sending money back to a home he hasn’t visited for many years – all contributing to a powerful impression of a project teeming with a multitude of people from around the world. Striking language reinforces all this, sometimes giving the novel a fable-like quality. Lots to admire, then, and a good deal to think about. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the book but it’s undeniably an outstanding achievement, and kudos to Jessica Moore for what was clearly a taxing task in translating it so ably.