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“Once again a terrific hurricane has broken on the world…” #stefanzweig #willstone

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Journeys by Stefan Zweig
Translated and with introduction, notes and photographs by Will Stone

Do you ever get that feeling where you’ve read so many novels and novellas and short stories that you’re kind of all fictioned out and need a change? That happened to me recently, and I suddenly had the massive urge to read some kind of non-fiction. It’s a genre I do love, from history to philosophy to essays to biography to travel writing, and it’s not as if I don’t have many unread choices on Mount TBR to select from… In the end I turned to Stefan Zweig; I had thought of him recently when Pushkin were promoting his titles and I spent some time tracking down a copy of his “Montaigne”. So I plumped for a slim collection of his writings about his travels, “Journeys” – and it definitely turned out to be the right book at the right time!

My edition of the book has been lurking for a number of years, and is a lovely Hesperus edition from 2011. Translated by Will Stone (who I’ve encountered on the blog before – I do love his translations!), “Journeys” collects together a number of pieces by Zweig on a variety of European destinations he visited, presented in chronological order from 1902 to 1940. Stefan Zweig was of course a peripatetic man, constantly on the move either from temperament or external pressure. As a Jewish man from Austria, the period in which he was living of course necessitated constant relocation, until his final journey to Brazil where he took refuge from the Nazi scourge in Europe. Alas, his stay there was not for long…

Stations and ports, these are my passion. Four hours I can stand there awaiting a fresh wave of travellers and goods noisily crashing in to cover the preceding one; I love the signs, those mysterious messages that reveal hour and journey, the shouts and sounds dull yet varied that establish themselves in an evocative ensemble of noise. Each station is different, each distils another distant land; every port, every ship brings a different cargo. They are the universe for our cities, the diversity in our daily life.

Whether visiting Ostend and Bruges, meditating on Hyde Park, spring in Seville or a food fair in Dijon, Zweig simply writes beautifully. He brings alive the location, considers the architecture and the history of the place, and records his impressions with an experienced traveller’s eye. His early journeys were at a time when the concept of tourism was in its infancy, and he could move from place to place on his own, spend quiet time assimilating his impressions and explore a town or city or area in peace. That, of course, would change…

In truth, Zweig’s writings always had a somewhat elegiac tone which I guess perhaps represented his temperament. However, inevitably this tone changes as the book goes on. There is the First World War and its aftermath; and Zweig visits many places affected by the conflict and decries the effect of war. In fact, his piece from 1928, “Ypres”, is one of the most powerful things I’ve read by Zweig (and I *have* read a number) as he revisits a place he knew before the conflict to see how it is now, and whether there has been reconstruction.

Not a shop exists where they don’t profit from the dead. They even offer curios made from shell splinters (perhaps those very same shells tore out the entrails of a human being), charming souvenirs of the battlefield…

In fact, this particular piece leads on to another issue in a changing Europe, that of the increase in mass tourism, the threat this poses to the places visited, and the modernisation taking place to enable this. Zweig is unhappy about coachloads of tourists turning up, being force-fed a tour of some place of historical significance, buying a souvenir and ticking the visit off their list. This is particularly pointed in somewhere like Ypres, where he titles one section “Jamboree upon the Dead” and I am completely in sympathy with his view; turning a place of massacre into a tourist attraction seems wrong, and this  resonated with the horror I’ve felt when seeing people posting selfies of themselves laughing and posing at Auschwitz. We can’t spend our life wringing our hands over past horrors, but we can remember and respect those who suffered and certainly we shouldn’t be trivialising these places and those victims.

Young Stefan Zweig (via Wikimedia Commons)

But there are lighter moments; his lovely essay of how the British cope during wartime by gardening is a delight. Then there is a piece on the Jewish Shelter in London, a haven for refugees, which is very moving. “To travel or be travelled” attacks the package tour head-on; acknowledging that although journeying on your own involves more planning and risk than having someone else whisk you from place to place on a coach, the rewards are worth it. Only by travelling on your own do you really stand a chance of getting to know a town or city, spending time exploring and perhaps having one of those chance pieces of seredipity when you stumble upon something unknown or unexpected.

Each morning the paper barks in your face wars, murders and crimes, the madness of politics clutters our senses, but the good that happens quietly unnoticed, of that we are scarcely aware.

Stefan Zweig started writing and travelling when it was easy to move around Europe from country to country. He saw that freedom eroded and eventually had to flee the continent to a kind of life which became unacceptable to him. I fear we’re actually regressing into those times again, having had the luxury of free movement for so many years; and it’s chilling to read Zweig state: “Is it the premonition that a time is approaching when countries will erect barriers between them, so you yearn to breath quickly, while you still can, a little of the world’s air?” His writing is always elegant and beautiful (and as you can see from the amount of post-its, I could have quoted half the book); these pieces are evocative and atmospheric; and the more I read of Stefan Zweig, the less I can understand why his books were neglected for so many years. “Journeys” was a moving and transporting read, and if you’ve never read Zweig you could do no worse than to start here!

*****

I wanted to say a little bit about this edition of the book, because it has so many lovely elements to it. As I said, the translation is by the poet, Will Stone, and as well as rendering the pieces in English he also provides an erudite introduction. There are useful notes and a little biography of Zweig, and most delightfully a selection of Stone’s own photographs of some of the places Zweig writes about. This was an element Stone added to the excellent “Rilke in Paris” and it’s a wonderful idea, helping to bring alive the places the author visited. As I mentioned, my edition is a Hesperus Press one, but “Journeys” is currently in print from Pushkin Press, so I imagine it will also have the extra material as it *is* the Will Stone translation. Definitely most highly recommended…

More Sparkly New Lovelies from Hesperus Press!

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Hot on the heels of their lovely new edition of “Mapp and Lucia”, Hesperus Press are launching today two new Hesperus Classics – and both are really rather wonderful! They are, of course, the publisher’s usual quality paperbacks with French flaps and around 100 pages long (so ideal for quick, bite-sized reads). The first is:

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

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This is a collection of three short works by Wilde – the title story, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” and “The Sphinx Without a Secret”. Now I regard myself as a lover of Wilde’s prose, and I’ve read “Dorian Gray” plus some other works, but I actually don’t think I’d ever read any of these stories – which is shocking, because they’re absolutely wonderful! “Canterville” of course is very famous and has been filmed. It tells the story of the American Otis family who buy Canterville Chase, an old English stately home. They are warned that the house comes with its own ghost, but being rational people from the new world, they don’t believe in such spookery, and take the house regardless. It isn’t long before the titular ghost makes his appearance, but unfortunately the Otises are not to be easily rattled – unlike the ghost’s chains, the squeaking of which is met with a request for him to oil him! Likewise, the bloodstain on the floor every morning is removed with a patent cleaner, and if that wasn’t bad enough the young Otises start to play tricks on the ghost, frightening him more than he can possibly hope to do to them! However, this being Oscar, there is a slightly more serious story behind things. Young Virginia, the 15-year old daughter of the Otis family, befriends the sad ghost and finds out the story behind his haunting. Can she help him and free the house at the same time?

“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is equally brilliant, telling the tale of the eponymous noble, an upstanding young man preparing to marry the woman of his dreams. However, a chance encounter with a palm-reader at Lady Windermere’s party convinces him that he is to commit a murder, and being a practical man he decides to get this crime tidily out of the way before his marriage. However, things don’t quite go as he plans…

The last story is a slighter tale about a woman with a seeming mystery around her which turns out not to be the kind that you might expect. These three stories are just wonderful, and proof of Wilde’s great talent. They have a lovely mixture of the playful and the profound; even though they’re witty and enjoyable, there’s always a little message there from Oscar. There is a subtle pathos in the plight of the Canterville ghost, and we can’t help but end up sympathising with him; Lord Arthur’s goodness overcomes all, and the story has a wonderful twist; and likewise the Sphinx of the last story has a touch of tragedy about her. These tales are beautifully written with telling little touches that give you the plot details without battering you over the head with them. Wonderful stuff from Wilde, and well done Hesperus for reprinting them and hopefully bringing them to a new audience.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

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The second new Hesperus book comes with quite a pedigree, as it’s usually reckoned to be the first proper Gothic novel, which sparkled interest in the genre and was so popular it led to everything else that followed which featured spooky castles, noblewomen in peril, candles in dungeons, the whole works! And it’s surprising to realise that this genre has become so familiar and embedded in our cultural psyche that in some ways it’s hard not to read “Castle” as a parody of the Gothic – except that it came first!

The House of Otranto is led by Manfred, who it is hinted from the start may not have come into his title and lands honourably. His sickly son Conrad is about to marry the beautiful Isabella when he is suddenly crushed by a giant helmet which somehow has come adrift from the statue of the good Alfonso, transported itself into the castle and squashed the heir! Manfred decides, as you do, that he’ll divorce his wife and marry Isabella himself, which causes great consternation amongst the local religious community, and to Manfred’s wife and daughter also! However, Isabella makes for the catacombs, aided by a handsome peasant called Theodore. There follows a frantic tale of knights in armour, love, deceit, lost heirs, heaving bosoms, giant limbs appearing around the castle, ghosts, ancient prophecies, portents of doom and Manfred’s madness. All is resolved eventually, but not before there is much drama and histrionics!

It would be easy to mock “Castle” if read by modern standards (or maybe not, when you consider what tosh is published nowadays!) but actually it’s remarkably groundbreaking. Published in 1764, during a century when books tended to be much, MUCH longer, this is short, punchy and quick to read, and must have been very exciting for the public at the time. Instead of spending hours (and pages) introducing his characters, Walpole gets right on with the story, filling in the background details as he goes, never letting the excitement drop. The female characters are allowed plenty of space and are surprisingly feisty for the genre. There are plenty of hints at stifled desire and Walpole really packs a huge amount into 100 pages.

If you’ve any interest at all in Gothic writings or spooky stories or dramatic deeds or feisty and fainting heroines, this is definitely for you!

(Books kindly provided for review by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

Sparkly new Mapp and Lucia from Hesperus Press!

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Unless  you’ve been hiding away under a non-bookish rock somewhere, you’re probably aware that the BBC are reviving E.F. Benson’s absolutely wonderful “Mapp and Lucia” for a new series this autumn. I confess to being a devotee of the original 1980s adaptation, so I may be approaching this new version a little nervously….

However, what is lovely is that Hesperus Press, one of my favourite publishing houses, has brought out a gorgeous new edition of the book and this is what it looks like:

Mapp & Lucia

It’s the usual quality Hesperus production, complete with French flaps (I do love French flaps on paperbacks!) and has replaced my rather tired Penguin volume which has gone off to the charity shop. I re-read and loved and reviewed “Mapp and Lucia” here – and if you haven’t yet had the pleasure, I suggest rushing out the nearest book emporium and picking up this lovely edition. I wonder if they will put any more of the series? 🙂

Bookish Karma….

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….or, what goes around comes around!

In bookish terms, I guess I mean that the Cull is paying off – Youngest Child and I took about 16 books into the charity shops today (we couldn’t carry any more – it was just too hot) and there are boxes and piles more to go. I am actually finding it something of a relief to be looking candidly at my shelves and saying to a book, “No, I loved you and read you one, but I shan’t ever need to read you again”. Paring down to the essentials is cathartic, that’s for sure. (It’s not only books that are going, btw – general clutter is going too, which is lovely).

However, I haven’t embargoed the obtaining of books; I’m just being strict with myself and only buying volumes (or accepting as review copies) things I really do want to read and hope to read quite soon. Thus it was that three books came home with me today (so the ratio is still good!) and these are they:

Quite wonderful finds, and all charity shop bargains. The Forster (a Hesperus!!) was in the Samaritans Book Cave, where we were donating – in beautiful condition and only £1.50! The Michael Arlen was from the Oxfam at £2.49, and again is in great nick and will go with my lovely Capuchin edition of The Green Hat!

The final book was unexpected: we were in the library picking up text books for Youngest Child to absorb over the summer, and trying to avoid the loud noise of the multi-cultural festival which was going on (though the bagpipes were wonderful, if a little incongruous in a library) – anyway, I had a quick look at the books for sale and there was the Maclaren-Ross collection of Selected Stories for 40p! Library sales are the best….

And Youngest Child was happy as she found a proof copy of one of her favourite authors/novels in the RSPCA for 95p! So obviously we had good Book Karma today because we donated – we’ll just have to keep giving! 🙂

(Forgot to mention the lovely review copy that arrived today from Hesperus – thank you! – now isn’t that an appealing looking set of spines?!)

Hesperus Book Club – Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind

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Some years back, I went through quite a phase of reading Swedish crime novels. If I can recall the chronology correctly, it started when I came across a copy of Henning Mankell’s second Wallander book, “The Dogs of Riga”, in a charity shop and liked the sound of it. I was pretty quickly hooked by the combination of great characters and plotting, and started to explore the other titles. Then OH treated me that Christmas to a lovely matching paperback set of the Martin Beck novels – a series of ten volumes written by the husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which I reckon are the progenitors of the current glut of Scandinavian crime, and are probably the best. I loved these to bits, and was interested to see that Mankell wrote the introduction to one volume, kind of acknowledging his debt to these books.

To date I’ve read all the Becks, all the Wallanders and all the Inspector Irene Huss titles by Helene Tursten that have been translated so far. However, the craze for all things Swedish crime started to pall for me a little around the time of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. I found the book nasty and infuriating – the violence was just too graphic and horrible, and the book overlong and severely in need of editing. I personally felt that if it had concentrated on the mystery alone it would have been a better book, but for whatever reason Larsson stuffed it with the politics and the business and the abuse of Lisbeth Salander and I struggled to the end and didn’t even bother with the other two books. In fact *whispers* I didn’t like Salander at all, or find her at all believable. I tried a Jo Nesbo and gave up on that also, as the violence against women was so sick and extreme I just couldn’t take it.

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So I guess I had pretty much given up on Scandinavian crime until I read about the latest new names on the block, Cilla and Rolf Börjlind. They have a bit of a pedigree as their press blurb reveals:

Cilla and Rolf Börjlind are not only Sweden’s most praised script writers for crime and thrillers, they are also bestselling authors. Their books are characterized by charismatic characters and the stories depict Sweden, full of social conflicts. The routine from script writing is reflected in the ability to create tension and twisted plots. Everything is tied together, elegantly and sometimes surprisingly. In the Börjlind world people are driven by a passion for social justice. Another characteristic is the typical Börjlind surrealistic humor. The couple have written 26 Martin Beck films for movie theater and TV and most recently the manuscripts for the Arne Dahl’s A-group series. In 2004 and 2009 Swedish television showed their long crime series The Grave and The Murders, written directly for SVT. The series became an immediate successes, among the critics as well as with the audience.

It was probably the mention of Martin Beck that caught my eye initially, but the fact that Hesperus Press are publishing the book too attracted my attention, and I was pleased that they were offering proof copies through their Hesperus Book Club blog so I could get an early look at the new crime thriller.

“Spring Tide” is the first book in a new series and opens with a fairly grim murder of a pregnant woman on a beach in 1987 (I skipped through that a bit…) Cutting to present-day Sweden, there has been a spate of attacks on homeless people, which are filmed and put up online. Two seemingly unrelated events – but are they? We then meet Olivia Rönning, a student police officer, who is following in her late father’s footsteps. As term at police college ends for the summer, the students are invited to study a cold case over the holidays and Olivia picks the unsolved beach murder, as her father worked on it. It’s a particularly difficult case to study, as most of the people involved seem to have disappeared, particularly the officer who was investigating, one Tom Stilton. Olivia is intrigued by the case and visits the beach and the area where the murder took place – and soon starts to run into difficulties. She starts to pick away at the past, trying to track down people related to the case, and starts to dig up stuff that shouldn’t be disturbed. In the meantime, more homeless people are attacked, there are criminal shenanigans in the halls of big business, there is some mysterious and nasty fighting going on among youngsters, Olivia and her cat Elvis come under threat and a whole wonderful cast of characters take part in an absorbing, clever, involving mystery.

That’s just a light sketch of the story, because I would hate to spoil it for anyone. As you might have picked up, I *loved* this book to pieces and it’s really rekindled my faith in Swedish crime novels! Olivia is a believable. likeable heroine – a bit damaged, a bit solitary, reasonably tough but human instead of superhuman: at one point, when she is being threatened, the authors quite knowingly point out that she is no Lisbeth Salander! But although she is the main protagonist, the rest of the characters are strong and well-drawn, particularly the elusive and also damaged Tom Stilton, who doesn’t reveal himself until well into the book. Then there is Bertil Magnuson, the big cheese in MWM, a company with very dodgy corporate policies; Nils Wendt, his late partner; Detective superintendent Mette Olsater and her wonderfully colourful and lovable family; Eva Carlsen, a bitter investigative journalist; Jackie Berglund, who has a raunchy history but manages to keep her salacious clientele secret and satisfied; One-Eyed Vera, Arvo Part and Jelle, plus their homeless companions; Mink the ‘tightrope walker’ and Abbas the knifeman; and Ovette and her young son Acke. This is what I love in crime novels, an ensemble cast, of which I hope many will turn up in future books.

spring-tide
The writing of “Spring Tide” is excellent – it’s so well plotted, full of twists and turns I didn’t see coming at all (which is lovely for an old hand like me – I get fed of anticipating the twists in books!). The are numerous plot strands and you just know that the authors will pull them all together, but you can’t possibly see how and it’s majorly impressive when they do. I was wrong-footed on several occasions and their audacity had me laughing and gasping out loud.

Are the influenced by the authors that have come before them? In a way, it’s slightly insulting to even consider this as there’s such skill and good writing in this book. But I can see slight shadows of the authors of Beck and Wallander here and there – the ensemble cast, the damaged detective, the wider political and business context. However, this never detracts from the book’s originality, and in many ways they handle certain factors better than say Mankell does – I often though his external elements and the foreign influences were ever-so-slightly fantastic. But the Börjlinds share Sjöwall/Wahlöö and Mankell’s concern for Sweden and the way that society has corrupted and deteriorated. They and their characters *do* have a strong concern for social justice and it’s reflected in this book.

I galloped through this book faster than I’ve read a new book for a long time, gripped by the action and involved with the fate of the various characters, really desperate to get to the solution – which is the mark of any good thriller! I have to add the small caveat about the murders in modern novels – they have become increasingly nasty and the one here *is* pretty unpleasant. I guess the books are reflecting the modern world, but I just feel that books don’t have to be quite so graphic about things to make the point that rotten criminals are about and need to be caught. Having said that, ST’s graphic stuff is considerably less than most recent crime novels I’ve veered away from, so that’s something.

When I looked up the Börjlinds online, I was delighted to find out this is the first book in a series about Olivia Rönning and Tom Stilton, and frankly I can’t wait for the next as I sensed several loose ends that may need to be tied up. I’m so pleased that I was able to receive a review copy of this book as I personally think it’s *whispers* better than “Dragon Tattoo” by miles! I’m pleased to have made the acquaintance of Olivia, Tom and their friends and colleagues and friends – roll on the next book!

In Praise of Independent Publishers

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One of my favourite things as a reader (and blogger) is coming across an obscure or lost book that I’ve never heard of before. I’ve rapidly come to the conclusion that 20th century writing is my favourite era, but alas in these modern days of mass-produced best-sellers, a lot of the type of books I like have disappeared from the shelves and are hard to track down.

So it’s always delightful to follow the current trend of smaller publishers who are bringing back into print lost classics or just lost quirky, individual works! I’ve ranted on a lot about Hesperus here, as they have some wonderful books in their Classic imprint, but also excel in bringing new works to light. They have a book club here, if anyone is interested, and the current book is a new and intriguing sounding Scandinavian crime novel which I’ll be reviewing here at some point.

However, I was very pleased her hear about a new reprint publisher, Michael Walmer, who was featured on Simon’s Stuck in a Book blog recently. Michael is based in Australia and as his site states “Michael Walmer has set about publishing a list where the main ingredient is quality. Authors will be sourced from all over the world, with a love of erudition, be it elegant or rough-edged, simple or complex, poetic or blunt, or all of these!, as the enlivening and guiding principle.” Certainly, the titles published so far are intriguing – wit is celebrated, in the form of authors like Saki and Max Beerbohm, but there are also writers like George Sand and Mary Webb – so an eclectic mix!

Michael has been kind enough to provide me with a review copy of a book I’ve been keen to read for a while – Ronald Firbank’s first novel “Vainglory”. Firbank is possibly something of a forgotten name, but I enjoyed his “Valmouth” very much when I read it many years ago and he’s an author I wanted to explore a little more.

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As Simon points out, the books are POD, which is actually the way a lot of reprint publishers are going nowadays – Bello Books for example – and this could well be a positive way to use POD, bringing back to life books that the big boys in publishing wouldn’t see as commercially viable but which many of us would love to read. And if “Vainglory” is any guide, these are beautifully put together books with very striking and individual covers – I love the Aubrey Beardsley design.

vainglory

So do give Michael’s site a look and see if there are any titles that grab you. I believe the books are available from The Book Depository, which could be the easiest way to get hold of them – let’s support another independent publisher!

Andrew Lang’s Red and Blue Fairy Books

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Just a quick reminder that these two lovely books:

the-red-fairy-book-final-with-white-author-name the-blue-fairy-book-final-with-white-author-name

are published today by Hesperus – more information here:

http://hesperuspress.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/publishing-today-the-fairy-books/

Hesperus Book Club: The Best Book in the World by Peter Stjernström

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“The Best Book in the World” is the second volume to be part of the Hesperus Book Club, and they have been kind enough to provide proof copies for interested readers (of which I am one!) There seems to be a wealth of good fiction coming out of Sweden at the moment – not just crime novels – and this story is in complete contrast to last month’s featured book, “The Merman”.

best

BBITW, as you might infer from the title, is a satire, taking pot-shots at the literary world and the conceits of authors, publishers, agents and the media. Our hero, if he can be called such, is Titus Jensen, a washed-up, past-it author who hasn’t written anything worthwhile for years and who has sunk into a permanent alcohol-and-cigarette fuelled haze. He is reduced to reading improbable books (“Handbook for a Volvo 245”, anyone?)) in a theatrical manner at festivals and the like to make a living, a way of life that is beginning to pall. At one such festival, hanging around afterwards in drunken haze, he encounters the younger poet Eddie X, who also appears at these events fronting a bizarre band called the Tourettes. In their rather wild and random conversation they hatch the idea of the BBITW – a book that will top every bestseller list, somehow encompassing every genre from cookery to crime. But there can only be one such book and so a race develops between the two authors – who will get the book done first?

This book is a real hoot (to use an old-fashioned phrase!) Titus is a dreadful and yet endearing character and you really want him to succeed in writing something serious again. His agent provides him with a rather bizarre computer that is somehow combined with a breathalyser and will only let him write when he’s sober! Will the drive to write the book overcome his addictions and dependencies? The contrast between Titus, staggering about all dressed in black, and romantic poet Eddie, who wafts about in silk pyjamas and the like, is very funny and well observed, as are the changes that take place in them as the book progresses – I shall say no more…

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Author photo courtesy nybookreviews.com

The roller-coaster ride takes in all sorts of shenanigans, including kidnappings, more alcohol and cigarettes, Titus’s publishers who are of course looking for a big-bucks earning book, and of course the bizarre Tourettes, a band which features Lenny (who really does have Tourette’s). There are extracts from Titus’s writings and of course the lines are blurred between author(s) and characters at several points in a clever way. The end is very satisfying and maybe a little surprising (I don’t want to give too much away) and there are plenty of laughs to be had along the way.

If I had any gripes with this book (and it would only be a tiny one) it would be on a stylistic level – the book is written in the present tense, which is not a format I tend to read much, although it works well for this tale; and the book does reflect the modern trend for shorter sentences. However, this is only a very minor issue and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book. BBITW is a fun, enjoyable read with a bit of a dark side and highly recommended – another winner from Hesperus!

Between The Wars: Roth and Keun

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As I posted last week, I picked these two books up on a recent flit through London. The Roth has been appealing to me for a while, and Keun had come up on an Internet browse as having had a temporary liaison with him. I thought therefore it might be nice to consider the books side by side. Firstly, though, a little about the authors from Wikipedia:

Joseph Roth, born Moses Joseph Roth (September 2, 1894 – May 27, 1939), was an Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist, best known for his family saga Radetzky March (1932) about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and for his novel of Jewish life, Job (1930) as well as the seminal essay ‘Juden auf Wanderschaft’ (1927; translated into English as The Wandering Jews), a fragmented account about the Jewish migrations from eastern to western Europe in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In the 21st century, publications in English of Radetzky March and of collections of his journalism from Berlin and Paris created a revival of interest in the author.

Irmgard Keun (February 6, 1905 – May 5, 1982) was a German author noteworthy both for her portrayals of life in the Weimar Republic as well as the early years of the Nazi Germany era.

So perhaps they are unlikely compatriots – an Austrian Jew and a younger German – but nevertheless these works *are* interesting when set alongside each other.

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth

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Once again, Hesperus Press have done us a great service by bringing a work back from oblivion, and publishing it in a beautiful little edition with a striking cover image and French flaps! “Hotel Savoy” was Roth’s second novel, and it’s set in an unspecified border town (apparently based on Lodz, which is now in the Ukraine). Our narrator is Gabriel Dann, a ‘homecomer’ who has fought in the first world war and is returning from a Siberian prison camp. He stops off in town to visit relatives in the hope of finding some money, or even a place to settle, but this town is perhaps not the best place to be…

Dann moves into the hotel of the title, a formerly grand building which still has several floors of richer clientele, but also some upper floors which house a rich variety of characters – performers, money lenders, wanderers, mesmerists – and Stasia, who dances at the Variete and attracts Dann’s attention straight away. But he has a rival for her, in the form of his cousin Alexander. His local family members are that of his late mother’s brother, who seems to have been up to some fishy business with her money, and despite providing him with clothes and cast-offs, they are not forthcoming with any money. Our hero is running out of cash and may end up in hock to Ignatz, the lift operator, who seems to have quite a lot of control over events in the hotel, until an old friend turns up in the form of Zwonimir – a confident, imposing man who completely changes the dynamic surrounding Dann. The men look for work against the background of increasing civil unrest – this is an industrial town, and the workers are striking – and Zwonimir  (a Russian) is fomenting revolution. How will things pan out for Dann and his friends and colleagues at the Hotel Savoy?

Gabriel Dann is a fascinating character, a survivor of war, revolution and all their horrors, who is detached – possibly a condition of his survival. He has become some remote that he cannot even respond properly to Stasia and her love and it is only when he compares himself with Zwonimir and the latter’s camaraderie with those around him that he realises this failing:

“I am on my own. My heart beats for me alone. The strikers are of no interest to me. I have nothing in common with any crowd, and nothing with individuals either. I am a cold creature. In the war I never felt really part of my company. We all lay in the same muck, all waiting for the same death. The difference was that I could only think of my own life and my own death. I walked over corpses, and sometimes it troubled me that I felt no pain.”

Roth writes very beautifully, conjuring up the industrial town battered by the war and revolution; the population equally damaged, many hanging on by the skin of their teeth; the corrupt industrialists who will exploit the workers for whatever gain they can. And then there is Bloomfield – a local boy made good, who has gone to America with his fortune and whose return is the cause of much rumour and excitement. But Bloomfield was once Blumenfeld and his return is not intended to help the many people petitioning him for aid. It is only the local Jewish population who know the truth behind his visit.

The book is full of people yearning for a better world after the destruction of the First World War and revolution (at the time Lodz had been passing backwards and forwards between a variety of countries, and had a mixed populace of Germans, Russians, Poles, Silesians and Jews). It is not a coincidence that Zwonimir ‘s exclamation for something good happening is simply “America!” as that country was perceived by starving Europeans as some kind of promised land. After the climactic events of the book, some of the characters travel away by train in search of something new – the European equivalent of going west.

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This was an excellent, gripping read, capturing the dislocation of life post-war and the changing of the old social structures. Although a short work (just over 100 pages, like many Hesperus lost classics), it packed in much action but not at the expense of characterisation. And interestingly, I discovered after a little Internet searching that Roth was a friend of Stefan Zweig (whose books I recently discovered). Both men were remarkable writers, both suffered because of their Jewishness, both met a sad end – and both are excellent writers whose work I really want to explore more.

(As a side note, congratulations to Hesperus for putting a warning at the top of their foreword informing the new reader that plot elements are discussed – I nowadays often avoid introductions to books in case they give too much away, but it’s nice for the publishers to be aware of this too. The book is nicely translated by Jonathan Katz, who also provides the introduction).

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun

“After Midnight” is a lovely little Neversink Library edition, translated by Anthea Bell (who has also produced works by Stefan Zweig) and with an afterword by Geoff Wilkes. The story is set a decade and a half or so after Roth’s novel, in a Germany which is becoming more and more controlled by the Nazis. The story is narrated by Sanna (short for Susanna), a young girl of 19 living with her half-brother Algin and sister-in-law Liska in Frankfurt. Sanna has fled her home in the country as she does not get on that well with her step-mother, initially lodging with her terrible Aunt Adelheid and cousin Franz, whom she is in love with. Sanna’s aunt is a horrid woman, tormenting Franz for a childhood tragedy that was in fact more her fault than anything. When she perceives Sanna is a rival for him, she denounces the girl who flees to Frankfurt, where she has settled down into a life with her family and friends, including her best friend Gerti. The latter is in a difficult position – in love with Dieter, a boy with Jewish blood, but with a family who want to marry her off to a nice SS man. As the girls travel across the city to meet him, they are blocked by a procession: the Führer is passing through.

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As the story unfolds, we meet other characters in Sanna’s orbit, including the cynical journalist Heini (whom Liska is obsessed with), and the Silias family, whose young daughter Berta has been selected to present a bouquet to Hitler. But Franz has reappeared and Sanna still loves him – how will the night progress; who will survive and who will not; do Sanna and Franz have any chance of a future?

I’m trying to discuss this book without giving too much away, because there are shocks and surprises as the story is told. “After Midnight” is wonderfully written, in the first person and in a very immediate way – we are following Sanna’s life and thoughts and it almost reads like a stream-of-consciousness narrative, so we feel as if we are experiencing the events alongside Sanna. We learn about her route to this point in time in a series of flashbacks, and become really involved with what is happening and her future.

Keun also manages to portray in a remarkably clever way what it was like to live in Nazi Germany; the creeping fear of denunciation; the random prejudice and violence; the way that nasty people could lie and inform on others with no basis; and the despair that overtook many of the independent, thinking people living in this kind of society. Keun never beats you over the head with this, instead using Sanna’s narration and viewpoint on things to demonstrate how it was, which is much more effective.

“It always used to be so cosy when two girls went to the Ladies together. You powdered your noses, and exchanged rapid but important information about men and love. And you combed your hair, and the pair of you wondered whether to let the man you were with take you home, and if they’d get above themselves, and want to kiss you when you didn’t. Or if you did, you’d be terribly worried the man might not think you pretty enough. You exchanged excited advice in the Ladies. It was often silly advice, but still, conversations in the Ladies were fun, and interesting.

But politics is in the air even in the Ladies these days. Gerti says she supposes it’s something if you find one without a lavatory attendant who expects you to say “Heil Hitler” and wants ten pfennigs into the bargain.”

Sanna is younger and in some ways more resilient – she is better able to cope with the complexities of this kind of life. However, Algin is struggling, having had his writings condemned; Heini, at Liska’s party, rather brilliantly dissects everyone there and has harsh words about Algin and his attempts to write acceptable works:

“The dictatorship has made Germany a perfect country, and a perfect country doesn’t need writers. There’s no literature in Paradise. Can’t have writers without imperfections around them, can’t have poets. The purest of lyric poets needs to yearn for perfection. Once you’ve got perfection, poetry stops.”

“After Midnight” shows very clearly and cleverly how hard it was for ordinary German people living under this regime; one where they were just as imprisoned as those who were transported. As one character comments, when considering the state of uncertainly they live in and the constant threat of fake informing,

‘Elvira,’ he says, this place is no better than a concentration camp.’

‘Fancy you not noticing that before,’ says I. ‘We’re all in a concentration camp, the whole nation is, it’s only the Government can go running around free.’

Irmgard Keun
In some ways this is a bleak book, but it also contains optimism and demonstrations of the resilience of the human spirit. Sanna is a wonderful character who we really care for and hope will survive to make a new life. I’m so glad I discovered this wonderful author and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.

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Reading these two books in tandem ended up being a fascinating experience. Although the two authors were only briefly linked, their novels do have a relevance in being studied together. In less than two decades, Germany went from a fragmented, crumbling nation trembling on the brink of revolution, to a united, warlike and powerful country controlled by a right-wing caste. The Jewish question and the subject of identity is a strong theme in Roth’s work, and the relevance of the shifting borders of the countries at the time of the story. Keun’s work is from a different point of view, that of an ordinary German girl, who nevertheless is struggling in a changing world. These two books reflect the differences between these two poles and show us how literature can help us to understand the transformations that take place in life. Both are highly recommended!

Hesperus Book Club: The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren

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As I reported a couple of posts ago, Hesperus Press have started up a book club and were kind enough to send me a proof copy of the first book to review:

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“The Merman” opens with two troubled children, 15-year-old Nella and her younger brother Robert. They live in the small coastal town of Skogstorp in Sweden and it’s the 1980s. The troubles come from several directions: home, which consists of an alcoholic mother and an absent-in-prison father; school, where Robert is brutally bullied by a sadistic set of boys; and the world and authorities in general, who seem to have let Nella and Robert slip through the net. She comforts her brother by telling him stories, with the assurance that “There is a beginning and there is an ending. And everything has to get worse before it gets better. That’s how it is in stories. It’s as if they invite it, as if nature itself invites the pain to intensify before it can ebb away. But one day the pain would disappear. One day, something would happen to change history, to transform it into a new, better story.”

Nella has spent much of her life fiercely protecting her brother, but as the story starts events seem to be spiralling out of control; mostly this is due to a psychotic classmate of Nella’s called Gerard, who takes the persecution of Robert to new levels bordering on torture. His character is displayed early on with a very unpleasant event with a kitten 😦 As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the children’s father is released from prison and returns to the home, bringing a very unsavoury character with him and disturbing the dynamic of the household even more. Nella has few allies, one of them being her friend Tommy, but his older brothers are behaving in an unnerving, secretive way and Nella stumbles upon more than just cigarette smuggling when she investigates at the old boat house.

This is a dark, troubling book on many levels. For a start, the plight of Nella and Robert is just heartbreaking. I have no idea whether this is an accurate portrayal of what could have happened unnoticed in Sweden in the eighties, but if it is I hope things have moved on! Then there is the general cruelty and indifference of the other children, which is not so surprising to anyone who’s read “The Lord of the Flies”. And in fact, this is quite an important facet of the book – Carl-Johan Vallgren’s somewhat jaded viewpoint seems to acknowledge the tendency to pack mentality and casual brutality in humans of all ages, and a need to persecute anything or anyone different.

Which brings us to the title character. It isn’t a surprise when he makes his appearance but his portrayal is one of the strongest points of the books. With the collision of reality and fantasy, Nella encounters a creature unlike anything she’s met before, who can communicate by thought and emotion (probably a deliberate choice on Vallgren’s part to emphasise the difference between good and bad characters in the book) but who is as vulnerable to the nastiness going on as Nella and Robert, and is being tormented by his captors too.

“All the time we were treating it, it was like the creature was accompanying us by means of a sort of melody, inaudible but still beautiful and calming, as if it was letting its inner being flow through us, out of gratitude for our help. It was speaking to us in its strange way, reassuring us that it recognised us and it trusted  us. It wondered where it was, what sort of strange world it had been taken to, and if anyone could return it to where it belonged.”

I don’t want to say too much about the book which might give things away, as I think it’s important not to diminish the impact events have on the reader; but there are twists and turns, Nella’s Dad is involved more than is obvious at first, Gerard’s psychosis takes on monumental proportions and there is a race against time to save those in danger. There is a resolution of sorts but not without a moving sacrifice being made; things do become better after having become worse, although the solution is not perfect.

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This is a powerful book, and a worthy start to Hesperus’s Book Club. It’s proof that not all Swedish fiction is murder mysteries and that an unusual amalgam of fantasy and reality can produce a compelling story – highly recommended!

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