Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Translated by Katy Derbyshire, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list)

IMG_3980Each chapter is a different voice telling a different version of the same desperate story: sex trade in a former East German city from 1989 to the present. It makes you ache at the loneliness and despair, while at the same time feeling horror at the choices these people have made with their lives. For surely becoming a prostitute, or a pimp, or a “guest” (a word preferable to the women than “customer”) is a choice, is it not?

How adept Clemens Meyer is at assuming the point of view of each person in his tale. I feel I am listening to the 30-something woman as she prepares to leave her warm flat in January for the unknown darkness awaiting her in a hotel room; I feel I am listening to the taxi driver who says to her, with a sweeping flourish of his arm, “Your car, madame.”

The irony, the pain, is piercing.

Yet at the same time, I can’t help but feel a little slimed while reading this. There is more than I want to dwell on about the darkest sides of human nature, the way sex is twisted into anything but love, the way that money and drugs and power are more important than a person’s heart.

Surely what Meyer writes about must be based in truth somewhere. Surely this is a world not entirely of his own creation, and who am I to judge? But 124 pages in feels like enough, at least for tonight. There is more than enough sorrow in these pages to last me until page 672.

What do you think? Should the subject matter of a book effect the way it is scored?

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Winner of the English PEN Award
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on October 17, 2016
672 pages

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (translated by Simon Pare)

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“Whenever Monsieur Perdu looked at a book, he did not see it purely in terms of a story, minimum retail price and an essential balm for the soul; he saw freedom on wings of paper.”

I love this book; I’m annoyed with this book.

I love it because it reminds me of Paris, of all the book stands along the Seine. I love the mention of many wonderful books, which I will list at the bottom of the post. And, I love a romantic story, especially one set abroad.

Yet, I’m annoyed. Jean Perdu is likeable enough, but please. It’s like reading about a cat named Cat. Perdu means lost in French, as anyone with two years of high school French could tell you, and it irritates me to read about a “lost” man with a surname of, essentially, Lost.

Jean Perdu has been lost since his lover, a woman named Manon, left him when he was 29 years of age. It seemed she wanted it all: a husband named Luc, with Jean on the side as her lover, and the author gives us a page or two of reasons why this is perfectly acceptable. After all, she reasons, who doesn’t have enough love for everyone?

Three decades later Jean is handed an unopened letter written by Manon, found in a drawer by his grieving neighbor, Catherine, with devastating news. News which now he can do nothing about as it happened so long ago.

He unanchors his book barge, Literary Apothecary (a charming name, to be sure, as Perdu recommends books he specially chooses for each individual customer) and embarks on a river adventure with a young author named Max, and an Italian man named Silvio. Each are in search of a resolution of his own.

At turns winsome, at times trite, this best selling novel leaves me divided. I understand what it is to grieve the loss of a lover. I understand what it is to read, and “prescribe” books for others. My hesitation comes from the fact that George tries so hard to be heartfelt, but sadly comes across as banal.

Books suggested within Little Paris Bookshop:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Five Parts by Adam Douglas
  • The Elegance of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes
  • The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster
  • Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary (tanslated by John Markham Beach)
  • Frauen von Brucken werfen (Throwing Women off Bridges-unpublished in English) by Gunter Gerlach
  • Stages by Hermann Hesse
  • Investigations of a Dog (a short story in The Great Wall of China, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir)
  • Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
  • Moby Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
  • The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet  (translated by Adriana Hunter)
  • The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike)
  • Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
  • the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, beginning with The Color of Magic and most recent Raising Steam
  • His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
  • Blindness by Jose Saramago
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • The Ritual of the Ashes by Alem Surre-Garcia and Francoise Meyruels
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  • The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

p.s. The Little Paris Bookshop was first published in German, entitled Das Lavendelzimmer.

p.p.s. I have not abandoned Captivity; I simply read this for Saturday’s book club discussion.

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

imageHe never claims to be anyone other than who he was, and yet this time the German Volk see Adolfo Hitler as a comedian. How is it possible that a man as evil as Hitler is now perceived as funny?

I approached this book with profound trepidation. And yet I was immediately drawn in, for Vermes is not making light of Hitler. He is utterly scorning the 21st century, particularly the media. From radio to television, newspaper to YouTube, his sarcasm lays the game completely bare.

I was reported to be dead. They said I had committed suicide…Was I dead? We all know, of course, what to make of our newspapers. The deaf man writes down what the blind man has told him, the village idiot edits it, and their colleagues in the other press houses copy it. Each story is doused afresh with the same stagnant infusion of lies so that the “splendid” brew can then be served up to a clueless Volk. (p. 26-7)

No, in Vermes’ novel Hitler is not dead. He has reappeared as the Reich Chancellor in Berlin, in his full uniform, and is promptly introduced by a man in the newspaper kiosk whom he has befriended to two gentlemen from a production company. Joachim Sensenbrink and Frank Sawatzki help orchestrate Hitler’s extraordinary reception by the German people who refuse to believe he is who he says he is.

Didn’t this happen once before?

Look Who’s Back is an unflinchingly honest look at Hitler, at people, at media, at our culture today. It is surprisingly funny, if one has the courage to laugh at one’s self, while at the same time cringing from the truth presented without any facade whatsoever. I am refreshed by the audacity and clear perspective that Vermes has used in pointing out to us what we should already know. I think it is a very courageous novel.

IMG_0625 Timur Vermes was born in Nuremberg in 1967, the son of a German mother and a Hungarian father who fled the country in 1956. He studied history and politics and went on to become a journalist. He has written for the Abendzietung and the Cologne Express and worked for various magazines. He has ghostwritten several books since 2007. This is his first novel.

Jamie Bulloch is the translator of novels by Daniel Glattauer, Katharina Hagena, Paulus Hochgatterer, Birgit Vanderbeke, Daniele Krien and Alissa Walser.

Look Who’s Back stunned and thrilled 1.5 million German readers with its fearless approach to the most taboo of subjects. Naive yet insightful, repellent yet strangely sympathetic, the revived Hitler unquestionably has a spring in his step. (Back cover)

F: a novel by Daniel Kehlmann

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F is for finesse. F is for fake. F is for father who’s absent. F is for frantically running from the life you’ve made and F is for fraudulent. For nobody in this book is who he pretends to be.

Arthur is the father, who wants to be a writer, and suddenly leaves his three young sons after taking them to a hypnotist one evening. He claims hypnotism has no effect on him, but it seems to be one of the many lies the characters wrap themselves up within.

Martin, the eldest, becomes a fat priest who doesn’t believe God exists. He spends his time perfecting his skills with a Rubiks Cube as if the championship ahead is the most worthy goal of his life.

Ivan becomes an art forger with his lover, Heinrich.

And Eric, Ivan’s twin, becomes a financial consultant who completely mismanages the enormous funds of extremely wealthy clients. He lies to his clients, he lies to his wife, he lies to his daughter, his girlfriend and most significantly to himself. He cannot face what is his fault.

Their lives are a parody of what it means to be successful, which is something they each search for but cannot attain.

“Truth,” he (Ivan) said, “that’s all well and good. But sometimes none of it gets you anywhere. Always ask what people are expecting of you. Say what people say, do what people do. Ask yourself who exactly you’d like to be. Then ask yourself what that person you’d like to be would do. Then do it.”

This is wisdom for “getting somewhere”? It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Finally, F is for fate. F is for the future. And perhaps for some of us, F is for faith.

 

Daniel KehlmannDaniel Kehlmann was born in Munich in 1975 and lives in Berlin and New York. His works have won the Candide prize, the Doderer prize, the Kleist Prize, the Welt Literature Prize, and the Thomas Mann Prize. Measuring the World was translated into more than forty languages and is one of the greatest successes in postwar German literature.

 

 

F a novel, is the second book I’ve read for the IFFP long list. Find other reviews from the Shadow Jury at 1stReading’s Blog, David’s Book World, Messengers Booker, and roughghosts.

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (A Spectacular Way to Begin the IFFP Long List)

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Several years ago, I was only able to read one book for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It was The Detourby Gerbrand Bakker, and I was not surprised to find that it was named the winner in May, 2013. That is how I feel about The End of Days, a book which is written with such tender and insightful prose it nearly takes your breath.

This novel is many things. The fly-leaf says, “A novel of incredible breadth and amazing concision, and the winner of the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize, The End of Days offers a unique overview of the twentieth century by “one of the finest, most exciting authors alive” (Michel Faber). And while it certainly is a portrayal of Germany’s history from 1900 through the next hundred years, it is so much more.

None of the characters are named. They are simply the baby, the oldest daughter, the mother, the grandmother. Yet we are able to understand who is who as the characters are woven together through five books, in between which comes an Intermezzo.

Each of the five books supposes a different scenario with the female protagonist. (Done far more brilliantly than Kate Atkinson’s work in Life After Life.) First, there is the baby who dies an infant.  In Book II, the author imagines that the baby had lived and is now seventeen years old living in Vienna. In Book III, the girl is a woman in her thirties who has entered the Soviet Union and lives in Moscow. In Book IV, the woman is in her 60’s and living in Berlin. The novel ends with Book V, when the woman is 90 and visited by her son in the nursing home where she is cared for. Through each of these scenarios, we see the impact that history has made particularly on the Jewish people, the Germans, and the Russians. But the scope is much larger than that. We see the impact of life on humankind.

I could not stop highlighting certain passages:

  • The customs of man are like footholds carved into inhumanity, she thinks, something a person who’s been shipwrecked can clutch at to pull himself up, and nothing more.
  • For many years now she has known something that her daughter will soon be forced to learn: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.
  • The end of a day on which a life has ended is still far from being the end of days.
  • Does it make a difference to someone who doesn’t know the truth whether the person is dead or just very far away?
  • On Wednesday, for the first time in her life, she met people who didn’t just grumble about how awful everything was, but instead clearheadedly investigated  why this machine known as progress kept undermining the well-being of mankind.

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967. She is the author of several works of fiction, including The Book of Words (2007) and Visitation (2010), both translated by Susan Bernofsky and published by New Directions. The End of Days won the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize in 2014. Also an opera director, she currently lives in Berlin.

The End of Days is a book which I strongly suspect may win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It is a book which, in my opinon, must be read.

 

Find reviews from roughghosts here, 1st Reading’s Blog here, and Tony’s Reading List here.

German Lit Month: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

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How stange that I should close a book of 731 pages, a book which was largely responsible for earning its 25 year old  author the Nobel prize, and wonder exactly what I ought to say about it. The scope of the novel is very large, and its themes are very big, such that it’s difficult to narrow down a review to fit into one post.

I was entranced with Antonie, eldest daughter of the Buddenbrooks family. I admired her spunk, her devotion to her father, even her tantrums which freely displayed emotion rather than tucking it away somewhere as a responsible adult would.

My sympathies lay deep with Thomas, eldest son of the Buddenbrooks family. I understood his devotion to the family business, his determination to make it all come out right, his frustration with those in the family whose primary skills were incompetence and foolishness.

My heart went out to little Johann, Hanno as he was called, because his gentle, artistic side showed a tremendous passion for music, but alienated him from his father and caused him to be tormented at school.

Of course there are countless other characters, including the rapscallion brother ironically named Christian, who exhibited behavior that was everything but that. There are countless themes including an exploration of the relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, sister and brother, homeowner and servant, to the examination of faith, education, and business.

As Buddenbrooks is the tale of the decline of a family, which is said to closely approximate that of the author’s own life, Mann has quite a bit to say about business. These are the types of quotes I found myself highlighting again and again, because they illuminate truths applicable to the 21st century as readily as they did to the setting in the late 1880s.

One quote in particular had me imagining Ayn Rand rising out of her seat in vehement protest. It comes from a discussion between the two Buddenbrooks brothers, where the eldest is chastising the youngest for something he said.

There you are surrounded by both business and professional men, where everyone can hear you, and you say, ‘Seen in the light of day, actually, every businessman is a swindler’–you, who are a businessman yourself, a part of a firm that strives with might and main for absolute integrity, for a spotless reputation.” p. 314

Why is it, then, that a firm so intent on integrity eventually flounders to the point where it is utterly dissolved? Perhaps  the company fails due to a change in economic times, or a change in leadership as the sons endeavor to maintain what their father left to them. But, I suspect it lies more in the fact that they do not adhere to the same moral principals that the consul Johann Buddenbrooks and his wife adhered to. Christianity is not something that Thomas, now responsible for the family grain company, can easily accept. He cannot rely on faith even when his own old age approaches.

Dogmatic faith in a fanatical biblical Christianity, which his father had been able to couple with a very practical eye for business and which his mother had then adopted later as well, had always been alien to him…But now, as he gazed into the piercing eye of approaching death, it was apparent that such a view fell away to nothing, was incapable off providing him even an hour of calm or anything like readiness for death.” p. 631

Whatever reason most attributes to the fall of the Buddenbrooks from the highest aristocracy to a significantly more  humble and lonely existence, I find this sentence to be the overarching theme of all the book:

Life has taught many people that riches do not always make for happiness.

It is as deceptively simple as Tolstoy’s famous first line in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

(I read this book for German Lit Month, as well as one of my selections for the Classics Club.)

German Lit Month: The Black Swan by Thomas Mann

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The Black Swan is the first book by Thomas Mann I have ever read. I picked it up because I was intrigued by the theme: an older woman unwilling to face aging. Only, the “older woman” in this book is younger than I am.

Rosalie was still capable of the old warm laughter that came bubbling from her heart-even at this period of her time in life, the spasmodic withering and disintegration of her womanhood, were troubling her physically and psychologically.

Rosalie Von Trummler is a widowed mother of two. Her daughter was born with a club foot, and has therefore rejected advances of love. Her son requires a tutor for adequate advance in his studies. A young American named Ken Keaton is hired to teach Eduard, and he soon becomes a regular addition to the family’s evenings. I was so intrigued by Ken’s point of view about America, one which I can see Europeans adopting. Yet, he does have valid points:

In general, despite being so unmistakably American in his entire manner and attitude, he displayed very little attachment to his great country. He ‘didn’t care for America’; indeed, with its pursuit of the dollar and insensate church-going, its worship of success and colossal mediocrity, but, above all, its lack of historical atmosphere, he found it really appalling. Of course it had a history, but that wasn’t ‘history,’ it was simply a short, boring ‘success story.’ Certainly, aside from its enormous deserts, it had beautiful and magnificent landscapes, but there was ‘nothing behind them,’ while in Europe there was so much behind everything, particularly behind the cities with their deep historical perspectives. American cities-he didn’t care for them. They were put up yesterday and might just as well be taken away tomorrow. The small ones were stupid holes, one looking exactly like another, and the big ones were horrible, inflated monstrosities, with museums full of bought-up European cultural treasures.

At any rate, Rosalie becomes entranced with Ken and fancies romantic involvement with him. Page after page describes her attraction to him, her imaginations of what could be between them. She embarrasses her daughter by giving Ken longing looks across the dinner table, then alternately ignoring him “demurely.”

What should you say, Anna, if your mother, in her old age, were seized by an ardent feeling such as rightfully belongs only to potent youth, to maturity, and not to withered womanhood?

But what becomes the turning point in the novel is the morning that Rosalie has discovered she has begun bleeding again. A strong believer in the force of Nature, Rosalie is ecstatic. She can hardly contain her joy, which she sees as permission to enter into a relationship with the younger man.

Nature has made her voice heard against it (a motherly dowager-hood). She has made my feeling her concern and has unmistakably shown me that it need not be ashamed before her nor before the blooming young manhood which is its object. And do you not really mean to say that it does not change things much?”

Things are changed dramatically, indeed, for the source of this bleeding is not a reemergence into youth as Rosalie expects, but an admittance into the horrors of cancer. It is an ironic twist to be sure, how the advent of bleeding into a woman’s life can signify two such diverse states as preparation for the possibility of birth, or alternatively, death. Thomas Mann has portrayed an enormously silly woman in the mother, especially in contrast to her practical, more mature daughter. But he has also given us a terrific psychological twist as we realize that of course, our bodies are not under our control. No matter how strong our desire for youth may be.

(I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy‘s German Literature Month this November. I hope to read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks as well…)

Sunday Salon: Sitting With A Simple Scone…

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and a cup of coffee as my husband prepares for church. I am simply too tired this morning, to stand as a greeter in the main door facing the crush of people and loud music emanating from the sanctuary. I need a Sabbath in every sense of the word; namely a day of rest.

There was a minor catastrophe with technology earlier this week as I tried to clean up my Google+ account. Ever looking for Organization, I thought I would just discard whole albums of pictures which seemed to be cluttering up my space. When I opened my blog a day later, all that sat where a picture should be was a gray rectangle.

“Fine,” I thought, “I’ll just give up blogging altogether. I’m sick of these template changes, platform changes, picture disappearances (all brought about from my own quest for Perfection) and this is it, I’m done.” But, my husband reminded me that Google backs up everything, and sure enough, there they were when I dug them out of the proverbial trash. So, I’ll carry on as usual. With my familiar reclining lady and no more changes.

October 18 brings us Dewey’s Read-a-thon…I cannot wait for that. Perhaps in one long weekend I can help make up for the lack of reading time I’ve enjoyed this September.

And, November brings us German Lit Month hosted by Lizzy and Caroline. Stu mentioned finding books by Joseph Roth in his local library, but clearly I need to move to his town; we have nothing but a plethora of American authors in our library. Perhaps the library has a volume by Thomas Mann I can dust off, but what I’m really looking forward to reading is Stefan Zweig’s Letter From an Unknown Woman sent to me a few months ago by Pushkin Press. Have you any other suggestions for a German author you enjoy?

Soon I will post about an American book in the short list for the Man Booker Prize. It has given me quite a lot to think about, and I’m anxious to discuss it with you. Until then, may your reading be rich and your days of autumn golden.

Back to Back by Julia Franck

“Even his own helplessness, and this was not the first time he had felt it, seemed to him small and ridiculous in the face of the general helplessness and immense misery of the world.”
The world which Julia Franck gives us, Eastern Germany in the early 1960’s, is indeed a miserable place. At least it is within the home where Thomas and Ella live with their mother, Kathe. 
Is there a more heartless woman? When we first meet her she has left her tenand  eleven year old children home for two weeks. Their desire to please her leads them to completely scrub every inch of the house, to the point where Ella is scrubbing the underside of a table with a knife and steel wool. But on her return, Kathe notices nothing but empty bottles which have been left on the stairs. She is a woman completely unable to show any warmth or affection to her children, so absorbed is she in her own agenda.
The situation involving a lodger from the government who rapes her daughter secretly, repeatedly, in the middle of the night is paid no attention.
The way her son is bullied at the stone quarry where he is sent to work, the description of which brought tears to my eyes, is paid no attention. Until he comes home so ill he’s at the point of death.
It is a stranger, sent for at Ella’s suggestion, who is able to heal him from his disease. Perhaps what begins the healing in earnest is her warmth and concern for him, a warmth which has not been given to him by his mother.
Thomas also finds solace in Maria, a nurse at the hospital to which his mother has sent him to study medicine. She is abused quite terribly by her husband. They turn from the harshness in their lives to one another, finding comfort in their love. In a secret they plan out together…
I think of the two siblings, sitting back to back, one telling stories she’s made up about their absent father to comfort her brother. Then I think of the two sides of Germany, once back to back before the Wall came down.
Does one of them have to fall for the other to live?
Like all the books I’ve read for the IFFP (International Foreign Fiction Prize), I found this novel to be so terribly piercing. Its poignancy will long live in my heart, as does The Mussel Feast which came before it.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

“…even small delays can lead to the greatest calamities.”
The author is so intent on insisting that having mussels that evening was neither a sign or a  coincidence that you can’t help thinking straight from the beginning of the story that it is just that. And the sense of foreboding grows until it is almost palatable: the mother’s red, chafed hands; the scraping, scrubbing, and rinsing while bent over a bathtub; the way the children weren’t to help in case they would be blamed for the unbearable crunch of sand should it grind between their father’s teeth.
“Once, in the past, our family unity was endangered when Mum forgot the salt on holiday.” I can see, just by reading that sentence, how the least little error can upset a family when the father is prone to an arbitrary fury.
“Playing piano and reading books won’t get an engine started, my father pointed out…” Of course, only he, the engineer, is the smart one; only he knows the value of an entire stamp collection the family can ill afford which is to ensure the children’s future, even though the packets of stamps accumulate unopened in the wall unit which also houses the alcohol.
Of course, these are just little things, even though they do give an indication of the horror it would be to live under such a violent and cruel man whose anger one could never anticipate.
The mother likes beauty, harmony and balance, none of which she gets but all of which she strives for. It’s as though if she sacrifices herself enough, surely her husband will be appeased. But no, the jumpers and dresses she buys on sale because he has spent their money on made-to-measure suits, or exorbitant tips at expensive restaurants, are perceived by him as rejects. She embarrasses him when asked at a company dinner if she’d like a dry martini, and she says she’s only known them to be wet.
When she sits to play Schubert, she cries.

I awaited the ending of the book with a terrible apprehension. Surely something horrific must happen to such a horrid man. But no, as the mussels repel the family members waiting for their husband and father to come home for dinner after a certain promotion, a change overtakes the mother. Her conciliatory manner, which she thought served the family well, has disappeared. It had been replaced right before she found the strength to throw the four kilos of vile mussels away.

They have waited long enough.


Find a review from Parrish Lantern here.