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.
I seem to have read more novellas than usual this year. Not entirely a conscious decision – I love that feeling of sinking into a doorstopper, particularly in winter – but several of the shorter novels I’ve reviewed have packed much more of a punch than a luxuriously fat, piece of storytelling often does. Nicolai Houm’s The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a case in point: a slim yet powerful book which explores love, loss and the meaning of life all within fewer than 200 pages.
The eponymous Jane is zipped up in a fogbound bright orange tent, alone in the middle of the Norwegian wilderness and contemplating what has brought her to this state. Jane is Canadian, a successful novelist and teacher. Blocked in her writing, she’s immersed herself in tracing her Norwegian family history, contacting Lars Christian who has invited her to his home. On the flight from New York, she meets Ulf who suggests she accompany him on a field trip researching musk oxen. When things go horribly wrong at the Askeland-Nilsens’, Jane turns to Ulf, taking up his invitation despite neither of them having much in common with the other. Jane is given to apparently capricious rages, often drinking far too much and taking too many of the diazepam pills she uses to control her epilepsy. As her story unfolds, flashing back and forth, we understand that something dreadful has happened to Jane, untethering her and shattering the wholeness she thought she’d achieved.
Houm’s novel is expertly constructed. Written from Jane’s perspective, the slightly fragmented narrative circles the chance event which has blown apart her happy, successful life exposing its fragility. Small details are slipped in so that we piece together a picture of Jane’s troubled mental state and what has provoked it. This slow unfolding of her story makes the revelation – told in much longer passages than those which led up to it – all the more powerful. Beautifully translated by Anna Paterson, Houm’s writing is often striking: a therapist’s office smelt of tear-stained paper hankies; only torn-off rags of the fog hang on the slope, the rest is gone the morning after Ulf leaves Jane in her tent. The characterisation is sharp and perceptive; Houm’s description of the first proper row in a relationship painfully recognisable. There’s a little quiet humour sprinkled here and there but somehow this only emphasizes Jane’s plight. A thoroughly accomplished piece of writing, this is the first book by Houm to be translated into English. Let’s hope there are plans for more.
A few years ago, I read Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir’s slightly wacky, Murikamiesque Butterflies in November which I enjoyed very much. Her new novel, Hotel Silence, is a much quieter, more conventional piece of fiction which follows a heartbroken man who’s bought a one-way ticket from his Icelandic home to a country devastated by war and holding its breath that peace has been struck.
Jónas has been celibate for years although not by choice. The love of his life has ditched him, telling him that the daughter he thought was his is another man’s. He visits his demented mother, patiently listening to the recital of the story of his birth and her accounts of the many wars that have afflicted the world. He has a waterlily tattooed over his heart in honour of his daughter whose name it is. He listens to his neighbour list the many wrongs men have done women and his worries that his wife is unhappy. Never far from his mind are thoughts of killing himself but he can’t bear to inflict the discovery of his body on Waterlily. Instead, he decides to go abroad, booking a week at the Hotel Silence. He packs a few clothes, takes the diaries he kept as a young man and, as an afterthought, a few tools. He finds the hotel the worse for wear and sets about putting his room in order, attracting the attention of the young woman who runs the hotel and her son. Soon, Jónas finds others asking for his help and a week turns into three.
There’s a gentler, more melancholy humour running through this novel in contrast to the off the wall moments of Butterflies in November. Jónas is sympathetically portrayed, a man left somewhat puzzled by what has happened to his marriage, mining his diaries for clues about the young man he was when he first met his wife. His visit to the unnamed country taking its first steps towards recovery serves as an effective metaphor for his mental state as he pitches in to help survivors marked by horror and atrocity. The theme of relationships between man and women underpins this novella, deftly handled rather than laboured, but always there. It’s a quietly powerful piece of fiction managing to both entertain and deliver a message of hope through shared humanity and cooperation.
This is the latest in Pushkin Press’ series showcasing contemporary Japanese writing, all brightly packaged and all elegantly slim. It’s the third I’ve read: I started with Hiromi Kawakami’s surreal Record of a Night Too Brief, having enjoyed both Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop, then ended last year’s reviews with Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich. Toshiyuki Horie’s The Bear and the Paving Stone is made up of three stories: one not quite long enough to be a novella, the other two much briefer.
The eponymous story sees a Japanese translator, educated in Paris and back from Tokyo on a visit, contact a friend he met as a student but has not seen for some time. Yann suggests they meet in Normandy where he now lives. It’s to be a brief visit as he has a photographic assignment in Ireland the next day. The two pick up where they left off five years ago, discussing all manner of things from the decimation of Yann’s family in the Second World War to the narrator’s project, translating a biography of the renowned lexicographer Lettré whose family originated in Normandy. Yann leaves the next day but the narrator stays, engaging in a little desultory research and coming to a surprising conclusion.
In ‘The Sandman is Coming’ a man visits his best friend’s family on the second anniversary of the friend’s death. Walking along the beach with his friend’s sister and her little girl, they recall her love of sand castles and our narrator is surprised by a vivid memory. A letter from a friend prompts a man to remember a night when he took fright in ‘In the Old Castle’. Locked in an old Normandy fortress by an officious groundsman he had a sudden understanding of freedom’s preciousness.
All three of these pieces are narrated in the first person making them both immediate and vividly impressionistic – from the titular story’s opening with its sea of bears stretching up into the mountains, to the lovely seashore exploration of the second. All three are closely linked by themes of memory and friendship. ‘The Bear and the Paving Stone’ ends on a particularly pleasing ‘madeleine’ moment with the narrator greedily biting into a tarte tatin only to be met with a piercing pain in a troublesome molar and remembering a similar moment with a carrot cake made for him by Yan. These are quietly enjoyable stories, elegantly polished. I hope Pushkin Press have a few more up their sleeves.
Mieko Kawakami is one of Haruki Murakami’s favourite young writers which made her novella hard to resist for me. Ms Ice Sandwich is the latest in a series published by Pushkin Press showcasing Japanese authors. I’ve only got around to reviewing one other– Hiromi Kawakami’s surreal Record of a Night Too Brief – which leaves four more to explore.
Our unnamed narrator is just at the point where his classmates are beginning to giggle and gossip about sex, making him feel uncomfortable. He counts his way along the white line leading to the supermarket where he’s bought two egg sandwiches every day of the summer holidays from a taciturn young woman with enormous eyes and a taste for electric blue eye shadow. Those eyes fascinate him, triggering a memory of the dogs in the story his mother once read him to send him to sleep, or perhaps it was his father. His mother pays him little attention now, too caught up in her own preoccupations. Instead, he tells his ailing grandmother all about Ms Ice Sandwich, spending his evenings perfecting her portrait. When he hears his classmates ridiculing her he stops his daily purchases, puzzled by their description of her as a freak, until his friend Tutti persuades him to pay one more visit before he misses the chance of seeing Ms Ice Sandwich ever again.
Child narrators are extraordinarily tricky to pull off but Kawakami does it beautifully in this funny, touching story. Our endearingly thoughtful narrator spends a good deal of his time in a state of puzzlement at the behaviour of other people from which we readers can infer a great deal: his widowed mother has lost herself in tarot readings and astrology; motherless Tutti spends her evenings watching violent films with her dad. His befuddlement is neatly balanced by the mature, clear-eyed Tutti who ultimately saves the day. Kawakami’s brief novella ends poignantly but on a note of hope for both of them.
This is my last review for 2017 – although not my last post – and it’s a rather lovely one with which to round off the year. This year’s blogging has been much more about books from small presses than previous ones. I’ve long felt that independent publishers offer more interesting reading than the conglomerates, something which seems to be increasingly true, at least for me.
To those of you looking forward to Christmas, I hope you have a lovely time. If, as it is for many, it’s a more complicated time of the year for you, I hope it passes as painlessly as possible. And for those of you in retail or catering who’ve been working your socks off – I hope you get some rest before you start all over again.
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.
Eating out is one of my favourite things. It can be sociable or not, a treat in itself or a quick bite before the cinema, something to round off a day on holiday or a step off the interminable wheel of everyday cooking. Whatever the occasion, there’s always a feeling of pleasurable anticipation which is why Christoph Ribbat’s whirlwind tour of the history of the restaurant instantly appealed.
In the Restaurant begins novelistically with a woman rushing through the Chicago crowds hoping to find herself a job as a waitress. It’s 1917 and the woman is Frances Donovan who is embarking on a research project which will culminate in The Woman Who Waits, published in 1920, but we won’t know that for several more pages. Next we leap backwards to a restaurant in China serving all manner of sophisticated exotica in 1275. Then we’re in Paris in 1760 at the birth of the European restaurant, a term derived from its ‘restorative bouillons’. The etiquette, cuisine and conventions of the restaurant will remain firmly in French hands for quite some time. Organised into four sections, Ribbat’s book takes us from the origins and development of these Parisian palaces of restaurant luxury to the popularisation of eating out in the post-war period with the rise of the fast food chain then to the foodie fetishes of the present, mining a wide range of kitchen memoirs, biographies, sociological investigations, fiction and reviews as he does so. Heston Blumentahl, Nigel Slater, Bill Buford and Barbara Ehrenreich all make an appearance
If it’s not too early to mention Christmas shopping, you could do worse than think about this book for the keen diners among your friends and family. It’s wonderfully entertaining, stuffed full of anecdote and juicy bits of trivia, one of the most striking of which for me was American restaurant critic Gael Greene’s memory of the fried egg sandwich Elvis Presley ordered after they’d been to bed but not the sex. Written in short fragments, Ribbat’s narrative jumps around episodically, often doubling back to pick up a story or a point, which takes a little getting used to but eventually becomes quite addictive. He has his tongue firmly in his cheek for the more extravagant exploits – eight (unpaid) cooks at the much revered El Bulli popping out 250 ‘lentils which aren’t lentils’ made from dough to be floated in a soup referencing lentils springs to mind – but it’s not just about luxury and obsession. Ribbat throws open the kitchen doors via Anthony Bourdain and George Orwell’s memoirs, shining a light on the inequality, exploitation and dubious hygiene of which we diners may be blissfully unaware out in the beautifully decorated front of house. Given that Ribbat is a professor the final brief but rather more serious section read to me a bit like an apology for a lack of academic rigour but who cares. It’s hugely enjoyable, and it has a meticulous bibliography which may well have you making your own foodie reading list.
Eric Beck Rubin’s debut is named after Carl Czerny’s eponymous score, much used by pianists to develop their technical skill so the internet tells me. I wish I could say that piece of knowledge popped into my memory while reading Rubin’s novel but I have to admit to being a musical ignoramus. It does give you an indication, however, just how steeped in music this book is. As with all the best titles, this one comes to have more than one meaning by the time you’ve reached the end of this neatly crafted novella about love, friendship and the consequences of repression.
Jan is new to the Sint Ansfried arts school. A talented pianist, his time is entirely taken up with practising although he has managed to find himself a girlfriend. Much to his surprise he snags the attention of the exuberant Dirk, a TV child star given to partying, offering advice on girls and endless joshing humour. Before long, these two have struck up an unlikely friendship which becomes increasingly exclusive. Jan begins to stay over with Dirk, their nights spent in the same bed never spoken of by either of them. After leaving school Dirk decides to continue his studies in the States while Jan becomes the star of his conservatory year. Both look set for glittering careers but curiously neither has contacted the other since leaving Sint Ansfried. During his time in Maastricht, Jan falls in love with Lena, eager to support him in his career. Just before his first tour, Jan meets Dirk and introduces him to Lena. This will be the last time these two meet for decades during which Jan becomes tortured by auditory hallucinations. When he learns that all he’d gleaned of Dirk’s career turns out to be carefully fostered rumour, he engineers a meeting in the hope that confronting their past will silence the cacophony in his head.
Rubin tells his story from Jan’s perspective, vividly evoking his early friendship with Dirk and his increasing distress at the discordance which later bedevils him. This is a wrenching story of love and its repression, laid out for us in the first few pages when Jan thinks ‘In my imagination I can’t separate what I fear from what I secretly want’. Neither of these two seems to have been able to be their true selves. While others have understood the nature of his friendship with Dirk better than he did himself, it seems that Jan has blinded himself just as he did, urged on by Dirk, on their reckless bike rides as boys. Beck’s writing is both insightful and striking, his descriptions of Jan’s torturous hallucinations and his inability to understand their significance painfully vivid. It’s a quietly powerful piece of fiction about knowing and accepting yourself, and the trouble that will come from choosing not to do so.
This is the first English language novel I’ve read from Pushkin Press, a publisher of whom I’m very fond. Their books are often a little out of the way: Hiromi Kawakami’s dreamlike Record of a Night Too Brief, Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir’s wacky Butterflies in November and Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal with its out-of-step protagonist, spring to mind. Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat is similarly quirky: a gripping parable whose characters find themselves pulled into the ultimate bureaucracy.
After five years of marriage and many months of unemployment, Josephine and Joseph have taken themselves off to the city, turning their backs on the deadening ‘hinterland’ of suburbia. First Joseph finds himself a job, then Josephine is offered employment by an oddly faceless bureaucrat with a nasty case of halitosis. All she has to do is input the relevant date for each id-number in a constantly replenished pile of files. She rarely sees anyone apart from the bright and breezy head of the Department of Processing Errors, who visits her grim office now and again. The work is simple yet oddly demanding but she’s determined to stick to it no matter how red and strained her eyes become. Life is far from easy: the couple moves from squalid sublet to sublet and Joseph comes home later and later, arousing Josephine’s suspicions. Then there’s the longed-for baby that’s never conceived. When she sees a newspaper listing casualties from a plane crash whose names seem familiar from the rush job she’s just completed, Josephine begins to think about what her work means, engaging in a little illicit detective work. Meanwhile Joseph has been bending the rules at his own workplace.
Phillips’ arresting novella unsettles from the get-go with its sinister interviewer. Known only as The Person with Bad Breath, she frequently materialises without warning, jolting Josephine out of whatever reverie she’s escaped into. Phillips tells her story from Josephine’s perspective, engaging our sympathy with her character’s puzzlement at her work and the loneliness that seeps into her life. At first delighted with their new life in the city and the prospect of starting a family, Josephine and Joseph have climbed on a relentless, grinding treadmill. Phillips has a flair for memorably chilling lines – ‘Remember, you need the Database as much as the Database needs you!’; ‘Without him she was just a lonely brain hurtling through space, laughing quietly to itself’; ‘We’re all just doing what we have to do’ – but flashes of humour brighten what might otherwise have become unremitting gloom. A strange, compelling novella in which Phillips manages to out-Kafka Kafka, keeping her readers guessing as to what the shadowy AZ/ZA organisation is really up to. Not one for readers currently engaged in repetitive, seemingly pointless bureaucratic employment.
I’ve not come across Dorthe Nors’ writing before although the Guardian included her Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space as one of their best books of 2015. It’s possible I dismissed Karate Chop out of hand, not yet having seen the light with regard to short stories, but if Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is anything to go by I may well seek it out. This short, funny novel sees Sonja attempting to learn to drive, something she feels she really should have done some time ago, while failing to find a place for herself in the world.
Sonja’s in her forties, a translator of popular Swedish crime fiction. She’s from Jutland but has lived in Copenhagen for many years. She lives alone, frets about why her elder sister Kate seems to avoid her calls and often thinks about her childhood – hiding in her father’s rye field despite strict orders not to, watching the whooper swans flying through the endless skies. Her driving instructor hurls incomprehensible commands at her while providing her with a furious running commentary on her own life and its many problems. Her flaky masseuse attributes every tense muscle to spiritual problems, insisting on the power of ‘medical intuition’. When she finally gets the nerve up to change her driving instructor she constantly frets that the new one will find out about her ‘positional vertigo’ and disqualify her from taking her test. One day, on her way to a concert with a friend who doesn’t seem the least bit interested in her, she helps a timid old woman and has an epiphany.
Nothing much happens in Nors’ sharp, very funny novella. Sonja stumbles from perplexity to perplexity, occasionally making stands, constantly finding herself out of step with everyone else. When her masseuse invites her on a walk she avoids the woodland glade meditation session. She heads off the pass she’s convinced her new driving instructor is about to make with free books for his wife when he’s simply relieved to be teaching some one his own age. Nors takes a few nifty swipes at Scandi crime: despite occasional trips to Sweden Sonja has ‘never stumbled across a corpse over there. It’s curious when you think about how many people die a violent death in Ystad alone’. Deftly combining wit with acute observation Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is essentially about loneliness, about not fitting in when it seems everyone else does. Its cover perfectly sums it up: shutting her skirt in the door is precisely the kind of think Sonja would do. Congratulations to both Nors and Hoekstra for their well deserved appearance on this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist.