Posts Tagged ‘Pushkin Press’

The Secrets of the Wild Wood

October 14, 2015

A man came into the bookshop the other day with a long white beard and extraordinary eyebrows. My jaw dropped and I only just managed to stop myself asking, ‘Are you the Master of the Wild Wood?’

the secrets of the wild wood by tonke dragtYou see I was currently in the middle of Tonke Dragt’s wonderful children’s classic The Secrets of the Wild Wood, written in 1965 and now translated into English for the first time by Pushkin Press. This is the second book – the first was The Letter for the King – and continues the adventures of young knight Tiuri and his sidekick Piak across a magical land, questing and battling for good over evil. Most of the action of this second book takes place in the Wild Wood, where there are mysterious Men in Green and – even more mysterious – Tehalon, the Master of the Wild Wood.

The man in the bookshop was not Tehalon, I soon discovered. I had my doubts when I saw the bottle of vodka in his hemp bag, and these doubts were confirmed when he said, ‘The thing about libraries and bookshops is that they always have such pretty girls working in them.’ Oh dear, I thought, as I handed him his receipt while trying to make my wedding ring as visible as possible. ‘You’re all right,’ he continued, ‘but you should see the girl in my local library, she’s a f**king stunner.

Touché.

I have to say that this exchange rather unfairly clouded my opinion of Tonke Dragt’s character, but no matter, it remained an incredible book and one I recommend to all readers – both young and old.

As more seasoned readers of Emilybooks might be aware, I adore reading a good children’s book every now and then. Favourite occasions for indulging in children’s literature include Christmas, whenever I’m ill, or when I’m struggling to get engrossed in a more grown-up book. Since having a baby, my mind has been rather more prone to being all over the place than before. Free time is so precious and yet it is hard to enjoy it when one is so exhausted (STILL??!!!) and one’s brain feels quite feeble. This means that a book needs to be really great to keep me gripped, otherwise I don’t have the strength of either will or body to pick it up, keep going and before I know it I’ve stopped reading a book altogether and my only reading matter is a Mumsnet forum about teething.

So I put down the rather dry book that I’d been not reading for the past fortnight and picked up this instead. The Secrets of the Wild Wood is the best part of 500 pages and I read it in under a week. (I’m aware that this doesn’t sound quite so impressive to those of you without babies.) The story is gripping, the scale epic, and Tiuri a hero with nerves, flaws and feelings which make him very easy to relate to. But I suppose the true feat of the book is how Dragt’s world of quests and adventure, knights and mysteries, which is a million miles from my reality, can be so powerfully rendered, so utterly immersive that for that brief moment it felt entirely plausible that a character from her world could step into mine.

I adored both of Tonke Dragt’s books – and so did the husband. I should add that this last one is the only book he has read in months that isn’t a cookbook (an obsession with which I will not meddle as I am getting so many yummy dinners out of it). Now we both feel rather bereft of Tiuri, Piak, Lavinia and co. Oh Pushkin – has Tonke Dragt written anything else that you might translate? Please?

Tonke Dragt

The Fishermen

March 9, 2015

I adored the David Attenborough Africa series. There was the ferocious giraffe neck fight, the heartbreaking bit with the mummy and baby elephant (I shed a tear just writing that), and this inspiring moment of baby turtles scrambling down the beach to reach the sea:

This story of the turtles – so many of them hatching in such hostile conditions and only a very few of them, with a near-impossible amount of determination and luck, reaching the sea – strikes me as being remarkably similar to the fate of debut novels. Think of the miracle of a story hatching in someone’s mind. Think of all the thousands of ideas that hatch, and how few manage to make it into print without being picked off by the many hazards faced by aspiring writers. Once the debut novels have made it into the water, so to speak, they ought to be applauded, they at least ought to be read.

The Fishermen by ObiomaThe Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is one such baby turtle that reached the sea in rather beautiful nick. The bright jacket caught my eye and my interest was piqued when I saw it’s published by Pushkin Press’s ‘One’ Imprint, which produces just one book a year. When a publisher is that selective, you feel the book must be good.

The Fishermen is narrated by nine-year-old Ben, who tells us about his life with his brothers:

My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives.

With their father away, the boys go fishing together in a dangerous, forbidden stretch of river. I settled in to what I thought might be a kind of Nigerian Stand by Me, half-wondering when they would see their first dead body or get covered in leeches.

The oldest brother, Ikenna, soon starts to be tricky and rebellious, perhaps testing his freedom now the father is gone. Yet it soon transpires that Ikenna’s difficult behaviour is not part of the usual trials of adolescence, but goes back to one day at the river, when he was cursed by Abulu the madman. Abulu prophesies that he will ‘die by the hands of a fisherman’. The brothers have called themselves fishermen, so Ikenna is convinced that Boja, the nearest to him in age, will murder him. As the poison sets to work in his mind, Ikenna suffers more and more, driving a wedge between him and his family so that you fear the prophecy, unthinkable as it is at the beginning, might just come true. I shall leave the plot here for risk of spoilers.

Obioma writes beautifully, with an imaginative eye for metaphor that makes the book feel mythical, as though the story is bigger than what it purports to be. So it isn’t just a story about a particular family, it is a powerful novel about ‘family’. When the mother is upset at Ikenna’s behaviour, we get:

It seemed a part of her body, which she had got accustomed to touching, had suddenly sprouted thorns and every effort made to touch that part merely resulted in bleeding.

It’s a brilliant rendering of that close bind between mother and child – after all that child was indeed once a part of her body – and the pain that is felt when the child turns away. It is every bit as affective as Lear’s ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth’.

I thought of Shakespeare again as Ikenna is increasingly derailed by Abulu’s prophecy. These words destroy him, just as Othello is destroyed by Iago’s plot ‘to ‘abuse Othello’s ear’ with words. Words drive Ikenna and his brothers to terrible actions they would never otherwise so much as consider; words have a terrible agency.

When the brothers first encounter Abulu the madman, Ben says, ‘He is like a lion’:

‘You compare everything to animals, Ben,’ Ikenna said, shaking his head as if the comparison had annoyed him. ‘He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman – a madman.’

Alongside their evil power, words are shown here to be a tool for making sense of things. Ben tries to understand what the madman is by comparing him to a lion, renaming him as something with which he is more familiar. Indeed each chapter begins with comparing a character to something, usually an animal:

Father was an eagle … Obembe was a searchdog … Ikenna was a python

When trying to understand the behaviour of his family, Ben uses this metaphorical power of words. In renaming his characters, he exercises the power of the storyteller. So Ikenna’s behaviour is less painful if it is rendered as the behaviour of a python; Abulu is not a terrifying madman if he is in fact a lion. It makes me think of Ursula le Guin’s haunting children’s novel The Wizard of Earthsea, in which she writes of the power of knowing something’s true name. Her young wizard Sparrowhawk must learn the true names of things in order to have power over them. So Ben, in The Fishermen, renames the characters in an attempt to exert power over them.

We see, however, that unlike Ben, Ikenna resists the power of these renamings. He says in response to Ben’s calling Abulua a lion:

He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman…

Interesting this ‘you hear?’ inserted in there. In part it is a colloquialism – ‘you hear me?’ – but if it is read more literally as a verb it makes Ben a hearer, someone who receives information, rather than a speaker, who gives information. Ikenna hears the madman, and it is this hearing which undoes him. Luckily Ben doesn’t just hear, he tells: he turns the madman into a lion, his father into an eagle, Ikenna into a python.

A debut novel is a baby turtle. I’m delighted that this baby turtle has made it into the sea.

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

Red Love

March 17, 2014

It was the day after my sixth birthday and I was at school, when the lesson was interrupted and we were all ushered into another classroom to watch television. I remember feeling quietly proud: I assumed it was probably thanks to my birthday that we’d been awarded this extraordinary treat. We were all squeezed into the room with several other classes, and I sat cross-legged on the floor, envious of the bigger girls who swung their legs from the tables above. The television was one of those school ones – grey, very big and raised up high on a trolley so it could be wheeled around.

We had been gathered to watch the fall of the Berlin Wall, on 9th November 1989. I remember thinking how colourful the wall was, with so many words brightly painted on it, and I was confused by the mixture of smiling and crying faces that loomed large on the screen. We were told that we were witnessing a really important moment of history. It was the first time anyone had told me that history was still happening, that what happened today – on my second day of being six – would be learned about in the future, just as we were busy learning about how Henry VIII got through so many wives.

Red LoveRed Love by Maxim Leo is a family memoir about growing up behind the Wall. Published in paperback just last week, I noticed it as an uncanny sequel to Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself. Having spent a week in Bielenberg’s vivid conjuring of Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s, it seemed strangely perfect to pick up a book that picked up exactly where she left off. Red Love is every bit as powerful and thought-provoking as Bielenberg’s memoir. Maxim Leo’s true stories also seem like the stuff of fiction. And, like the best fiction, they raise more questions than they answer.

Leo traces his family’s connection with the GDR back to his grandparents. His mother’s father Gerhard fled Germany as a child in the thirties. Gerhard’s father was a Jewish lawyer, who had made an enemy of Goebbels in the 1920s, when he proved that Goebbels’ club foot had been present since birth and was not, as Goebbels claimed, a result of French military torture. Once the War caught up with France, Gerhard became a fighter for the resistance, bravely undertaking secret operations and fighting with communist partisans. There are several lucky escapes, and these passages are as tense and gripping as the best action-packed war films. Leo shows how Gerhard’s fierce fighting for freedom then translated itself into fervent belief in the GDR. When fourteen-year-old Leo challenges his grandfather about the Wall, he is told

He was glad there was a wall to keep criminals like that away from him.

Criminals like what? Criminals like the Nazis Gerhard fought against during the War. Nazis like Leo’s other grandfather, Werner.

When Werner was newly married and had found a first flat, he is determined to put a swastika flag in the window. He comes back with the biggest flag he can find, and wants to fly one from his parent-in-law’s apartment too, for which he buys flagpoles. And yet twenty years later, he was fervently flying red flags for the GDR.

My two grandfathers never met. I don’t know if they’d have had anything to say to each other if they had met. Still, they built the same state, they were in the same Party, perhaps they even believed in the same things at some point. And yet they would probably have remained strange to one another because their careers were so different, because fate had guided them in very different directions very early on.

How is it that two men who had such different stories could end up in the same place, both believing so strongly in the same thing?

I think that for both my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again … From now on all that mattered was the future. And trauma turned to dream.

Through his compelling and fascinating family memoir, Leo offers some answers, and asks many more questions. He explores how the GDR came into being, why its founding fathers – from such diverse backgrounds – believed so strongly in it, how the dream soured, and the intimate, complicated relationship everyone had with it. As his father Wolf says, ‘The GDR was always there in bed with us.’

Both Maxim Leo and his father have moments when they contemplate crossing the border, fleeing to the West, but both turn away from ‘alien freedom’ to return to ‘the prison that is my home’. Images of borders and barriers return again and again in the book, as though the Wall is reflected in each person’s psyche. Leo writes of how Wolf, an artist, liked to brush against the state, push them to see how far he could go in his work. The Stasi, however, saw that Wolf wasn’t really dangerous, saw that he was in fact a potential asset. There is an eerie passage in the book when they try to recruit him:

Plainly they had seen something in Wolf that he himself did not want to see … He had that need to do something, to commit himself, not always just to be against, but also to be for something.

This complicated push-pull relationship in which you are both for and against something which both supports and restrains you is echoed in a passage when Leo was in hospital as a child. He remembers being in a room with barred windows; his parents were only allowed to visit once a week:

Wolf came more often, he climbed up the bars and waved at me from outside …

The bars are a means of separation but they are also something to climb up, to cling on to. So the Wall and its echoes – the many barriers which populate the book –  act as supports, holding up the GDR and its inhabitants, as well as fencing them in.

No wonder that when the Wall came down, and freedom flooded in, something was also lost. There was no longer something to define yourself for or against, no barrier and no support.

Red Love is a fascinating study of home and family, showing the strength of these bonds, and how they push as well as pull. While Leo keeps enough cool distance to yield a historian’s insight on the past, the pages remain astir with a nostalgic love for the communist state and what it set out to achieve. It’s a unique balance, leaving one aware of the many faults and travesties of the Stasi state, and yet feeling a sadness that the dream turned into such a nightmare. It can certainly see now why those faces I stared at on the television as a six-year-old were crying as well as smiling.

Journey by Moonlight

February 17, 2014

And while there is life there is always the chance that something might happen …

Journey by MoonlightThis is the brilliant final line of Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Beginning with ‘And’, ending with ellipses (Szerb’s not mine), the novel doesn’t so much finish as keep on going. It leaves you asking what will be the next coincidence in this wonderful novel of chance, wandering and possibility.

Nicholas Lezard begins his excellent Guardian review saying that once he got to the end of Journey by Moonlight, he went straight back to the beginning. I found myself doing the same. It wasn’t that I wanted to re-read it all, but just to remind myself how it began, to try to join those dots.

The opening is nearly as good as the ending:

On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

Immediately we know that the book will be about travel – train journeys, wandering through alleys – and about trouble. Szerb explains that his protagonist Mihály is in Italy because:

He was now married and they had decided on the conventional Italian holiday for their start to married life. Mihály had now come, not to Italy as such, but on his honeymoon, a different matter entirely.

So we are introduced to Szerb’s unique lightly ironic tone. He points out the flaws and shortcomings of his characters, but their marvellous eccentricities make it impossible to lose your sense of humour and feel too cross with them. He invites you to laugh at his characters rather than criticise. (One of my favourites is the Hungarian academic, who sleeps all day, has the messiest study imaginable and eats only cold meat so thoughtfully provides a banana as some variation for Mihály when he comes to dinner.) Throughout the novel, however fed up we get with Mihály, we still forgive and indulge him, just as Szerb here points out and forgives his conventional honeymoon.

Mihály finds himself wandering through the Venetian back-alleys all night. He returns to his hotel and finds that he cannot explain himself to his wife:

‘So this is marriage,’ he thought. ‘What does it amount to, when every attempt to explain is so hopeless? Mind you, I don’t fully understand all this myself.’

These wry asides are another feature of the book, which made me want to jot down line after line as the perfect comment on something or another. A real gem is:

November in London is a state of mind.

The scene is set: a new marriage, foundering even during its honeymoon, and a man who doesn’t understand himself. His attempt to understand himself – a great deal of self-reflexive wondering – is translated into his wandering feet, through the back-alleys of Venice and then further afield.

The opening is a metonym for what will happen in the rest of the novel, not only in the way it captures so many elements of Szerb’s brilliant style, but also in terms of plot. Before long, Mihály accidentally gets on a different train to his wife and instead of trying to find her again, continues his Italian wanderings alone. (His wife, meanwhile, goes to Paris, stays with a girlfriend, and becomes involved with a friend of Mihály’s and an enigmatic, tigerish, Persian.)

As Mihály wanders, he is running away from his ‘bourgeois’ present – his conventional honeymoon, his job in the family firm, his whole middle-class life – and trying to return to a period of adolescence when he was friends with a bohemian brother and sister. They used to spend their time role-playing, stealing, pretending to kill themselves and being rather too close to each other. He is haunted by his relationship with them, and the novel is a testament to the power of this nostalgia.

Mihály feels lost as to his future. His wanderings are driven by his desire for this period of his youth. He doesn’t know what to do now or next, wanting only to reconnect with his past. Perhaps this is why we feel the need to go back to the beginning of the book, once we’ve reached its end – its whole drive is pushing back into the past.

You’d have thought this might be problematic in terms of plot and pace – for surely you want to be thinking about the future, what happens next, rather than revisiting past events, but Szerb is very good at keeping us on our toes. It’s a bit like Murdoch’s Under the Net: you’re forever guessing where the protagonist will go next, who’s knocking at the door, or lurking down the alley. Somehow the elaborate chain of coincidences doesn’t feel excessively, annoyingly staged, rather it heightens the eerie dreamy feeling that pervades the book.

Szerb sets up one situation especially self-consciously, pointing out its unlikeliness:

Erzsi’s sense of unreality grew and grew … It was as if everything had been prepared in advance. Of this Erzsi no longer had any doubt.

Erszi realises she’s been manipulated and set-up by her lover. At the heart of this scene, she has an intense moment of self-realisation:

She was sobbing, and horribly tired. This was the moment of truth, when a person sees the whole pattern of their life.

Szerb draws attention to people’s vulnerability to being manipulated into situations, while suggesting that they depend on this manipulation in order to realise a truth about themselves.

It is symptomatic of the whole novel – through a series of remarkable coincidences, Mihály comes to learn about himself. Reality has to become unreal in order to grasp the greater reality. In dreams you encounter more profound truths than in waking life. Szerb uses all his coincidences to give a dreamlike feeling to the book, thereby making it a means to tackle many big truths about the human condition, such as the urge to escape mundane life, the link between sex and death, and the power of nostalgia.

Journey by Moonlight was written in 1937, at a time when Europe’s future looked increasingly bleak. (It certainly proved to be so for Szerb, who died in a forced labour camp in 1945.) It is not so surprising then that it is preoccupied with the past. In many ways it is a love letter to ancient Italian cities, with their rich Roman, Etruscan and folk history (there’s a particularly intriguing bit about Gubbio’s doors of the dead). It is also a celebration of a time when people moved freely through Europe – Hungarians coming to Italy, going on to Paris, meeting Englishmen, Persians, Americans … Szerb catches the experience of travelling through Italy just before everything changed. Incidentally, Pushkin are just about to publish Szerb’s notes on his own travels through Italy, The Third Tower.

I suppose I’ve made Journey by Moonlight sound rather heavy-going, European and serious. It is, but it is also very very funny. It is a brilliant novel – dreamy, witty, picaresque, intelligent, wry … and impossible to sum up.

Nicholas Lezard and Paul Bailey will be talking about Antal Szerb to his translator Len Rix at the Daunt Books Festival (programme here) at 12 noon on Friday 28th March. It’s going to be amazing – unmissable for anyone who is a Szerb fan, and an inspiring introduction for those new to his work. You can book here, if you scroll down a bit.

For more on Szerb, here’s my post on his first novel, The Pendragon Legend.

Antal Szerb

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

January 27, 2014

It was foul weather for Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday, so I was amazed by how many people turned up, hooded, wellied and umbrellaed, keen to get out on the Heath in spite of the sheeting rain.

Alas our garrulous charge into the greenery soon dwindled to a conversation-struggling limp as no one could hear anything beneath their hoods, and were concentrating too much on missing the puddles to be able to talk about the book. Feeling rather feeble, we retreated to a nearby café, shedding our waterproofs and apologetically disturbing its quiet newspaper-reading clientele, as, revived with hot drinks, all thirty of us launched into an impassioned discussion of Gaito Gazdanov’s brilliant The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. As you know, this whole sitting down thing is anathema to the walking book club, so I managed to move a few people around every now and then to mix things up, and darted about between the groups, reading passages aloud and steering conversation as though we were on foot. While we were thwarted of the bracing air and soaring views of London, everyone still claimed to have enjoyed their morning, and many remained chatting bookishly in the café after I returned to work in the bookshop.

The Spectre of Alexander WolfWhat a great novel! And what a strange one. It hooks you from the start, with a terrific first sentence:

Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.

Critics have compared Gazdanov to Proust, I suppose because of the way a powerful memory can propel so much of the narrative, but this is murder he’s remembering, not a visit from enigmatic Charles Swann at idyllic Combray. And while Proust’s narrative is luxurious and sensuous, there is a febrile urgency to the dreamlike feeling of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. It is more a telling of an unshakeable nightmare than a madeleine-induced reverie.

Back to the murder. We are told that the narrator was fighting in the Russian Civil War when his horse was shot and he ‘went tumbling down with her’, although was unharmed. Coming towards him was ‘a rider astride a great white horse’:

I saw the rider let go of the reins and shoulder his rifle, which, until that point he had been carrying atilt. It was then that I fired. He jerked up in his saddle, slumped down and fell slowly to the ground.

The narrator looks into the dying eyes of the fallen man, when he hears hooves in the distance, and so rides off on the white horse and escapes. In Paris, many years later, the narrator is astonished to read a short story telling of exactly this episode but from the murdered man’s point of view. Of course he is determined to meet the writer – Alexander Wolf – and the book follows him on his quest to meet him.

Or does it?

For this is a strange shape-shifting book. It begins as a mystery, then becomes a picaresque evocation of life in Paris between the wars, pausing for a detailed account of a boxing match, before transforming into an intense love story, and right at the end there’s an unexpected turn into gangster noir. All this action is interspersed with thought-provoking philosophical discussions and digressions.

These plural forms of the novel make me think of when the narrator receives a phonecall from his lover:

Hearing those first sounds of her voice, distorted as usual by the telephone, I immediately forgot everything I’d only just been thinking about; it was so total and instantaneous as though the thoughts had never even existed.

The twists and turns of the narrative can feel similarly startling. There you are on the path of this mysterious Alexander Wolf and the next thing you know you’re at a boxing match, and it is as though the earlier episodes ‘had never even existed’.

Except of course you don’t completely forget about what’s gone before. The book, in fact, makes a case for the inescapable uncanny interconnections between everything and everyone – however disparate they might seem. Throughout the novel, Gazdanov repeats the phrase:

The chain of events in each human life is miraculous.

Just one action – the bullet from the narrator’s revolver – has brought together a whole world of consequences:

Who could have known that the bullet’s spinning, instantaneous flight actually contained that town on the Dnieper, Marina’s inexpressible charm, her bracelets, her singing, her betrayal, her disappearance, Voznesensky’s life, the ship’s hold Constantinople, London, Paris, the book I’ll Come Tomorrow and the epigraph about the corpse with the arrow in its temple?

And there is even more contained in that bullet, yet to be revealed. I don’t want to give away the twist at the end, but it rests upon the flight of another bullet. Perhaps the chain of events set in motion by the first bullet can only be halted by that of a second.

As might be expected from a book which encompasses so many genres, capturing many scenarios and ideas in its sweep, there is a great deal to think about. Just as compelling as life’s ‘miraculous’ chain of events – the spinning bullet which draws everything into its centrifugal force – is the idea that one man’s life can be inextricably bound to another’s. The kill or be killed situation at the start, which the narrator and Alexander Wolf both managed to survive and so cheat death, binds them together. As one walker said, ‘It’s like Harry Potter and Voldemort!’ Indeed it is! Quite why all the critics seem so bent on picking up echoes of Proust rather than J.K. Rowling is beyond me.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is one of those books that will continue to haunt me, just like the narrator is haunted by the spectre himself. It left me – and other walkers too – wanting to re-read it straight away, to try to make more sense of the strange connections and diversions which Gazdanov, thankfully, doesn’t over-explain.

And just who is Gaito Gazdanov? He fought in the White Army and then was exiled in Paris from 1920, where he became a taxi-driver by night and writer by day. Praise be to Pushkin Press for publishing his work in English. They’re bringing out another of his books in late August – I can’t wait.

Gaito Gazdanov

The Pendragon Legend

August 21, 2013

I love reading a first novel. Sure, it might not be quite as refined as an author’s later work, but there’s something so thrilling about its pizzazz, the energy of a stream of creativity unleashed for the first time. (I feel a Top Five First Novels might be coming on…)

The Pendragon LegendThe Pendragon Legend is Antal Szerb’s first novel. He wrote it in 1934 but it was translated into English – wonderfully, although, knowing no Hungarian, who am I to say? – by Len Rix for the brilliant Pushkin Press just seven years ago.

Why is it that saying I’ve just read something Hungarian sounds so high-brow? In fact, on the face of it, The Pendragon Legend is easy peasy, gripping and very funny too. It felt like Tintin for grown-ups, full of scrapes and adventures, improbable kidnappings and ghoulish apparitions.

Dr János Bátky is a young Hungarian studying in London. At a soiree, he meets an Earl and it transpires that they are both interested in the same – pretty esoteric – Rosicrucian histories. The Earl invites him to stay in his Welsh castle, where there is a formidably good library:

I was filled with the tenderness I always feel – and which nothing can match – when I encounter so many books together. At moments like these I long to wallow, to bathe in them, to savour their wonderful, dusty, old-book odours, to inhale them through my very pores.

Booklovers will, of course, know exactly what he means.

Things get a little fishy as soon as Bátky receives the invitation. He gets a threatening phonecall, picks up a questionable hanger-on, and is asked to delivery a mysterious ring. Everything gets yet weirder at the castle, when the cartridges are removed from his revolver, and there is a great deal of unnerving activity at night.

Bátky struggles to reconcile his rational, scholarly mind with the bizarre other-worldly events that are taking place. He reflects:

The single most eerie thing about our planet is that there are no such things as ghosts. For this, as for everything else, there must be a rational explanation, but it has always escaped me. What, for example, is one supposed to do, at midnight, when a giant mediaeval figure that is not a ghost is standing before your bedroom door?

In this instance there is a perfectly logical explanation. As Osborne, the Earl’s nephew, reassures Bátky the next morning:

An ancient ruling requires the Earl of Gwynedd to maintain thirty night-watchmen, complete with halberds, wherever he resides. Even their garments are prescribed. There’s nothing unusual in that. Britain is full of these old mediaeval statutes. Anyway, thirty men with halberds are a great deal more practical than the knights in armour Lord Whatsisname has to keep permanently at the ready.

Later on, Bátky struggles again to describe strange night happenings:

There are some things that are only true at night. There was no way I could have discussed them. I would have been ashamed to. One is ashamed of the incomprehensible, the irrational, as though it were a form of mental illness.

And again, later, he says:

There are some things that have an inner truth, but become nonsense when spoken. It just isn’t possible to explain … We live simultaneously in two worlds, and there are two levels of meaning. One can be understood by everyone, the other is beyond words, and is utterly horrible.

Throughout the novel there is this dichotomy between the everyday world – the love affairs, friendships and adventures – and the mysterious nocturnal happenings, which no one can quite get a handle on. It was a dichotomy I noticed in Susan Hill’s The Small Hand too – that ghost story became all the more affective for its psychoanalytical ramifications.

Antal SzerbHere, it’s not clear what this other world is. There are hints of Freud, such as when Bátky is wandering through the endless dark corridors of the castle ruins and remarks that he has often dreamed of the same thing. In some respects, it is the world of tradition – evident in the old English rulings that demand servants wearing strange costumes. Perhaps, also, this other world is myth. Like Frankenstein, The Pendragon Legend is a retelling of the Prometheus myth – of what happens when man tries to reach beyond his mortal power.

That this was written in 1934, the year that Hitler became Führer, and that Szerb was murdered in a forced labour camp in 1945, gives this myth a chilling resonance. Behind all the exciting adventure, Szerb gives a prescient glimpse of the pure evil that would spread through Europe: ‘beyond words … utterly horrible’. How could there be a rational explanation for the horrors that were beginning to unfold?

This is the sinister and terrible edge to The Pendragon Legend. And yet, the balance is perfect. The horror gleams threateningly but is masked by a romp of an adventure, and acute, funny observations about the British that only a European could make. It has left me itching to read more from this wonderful Hungarian novelist, whose formidable talent was so tragically cut short.

Antal Szerb collection

Coin Locker Babies

April 29, 2013

Coin Locker BabiesThe moments I found most compelling in this energetic, violent and hallucinatory Japanese novel are the descriptions of decaying landscapes. Here is one that comes near the beginning, when the two main characters – Kiku and Hashi – discover an abandoned mining town:

They cut across the playground of the abandoned school, past a twisted and broken horizontal bar. Cactuses grew luxuriantly in the sandbox, their needles covering the surface of a nearby pool filled with murky water. Three telephone poles, rotted and splitting, provided a nest for thousands of termites, and clouds of transparent wings filled the air. Beyond this translucent curtain, the boys could make out a town, or rather a row of empty shops facing a row of abandoned brothels and bars, and between the two a street from which the pavement was mostly gone.

“Look! Isn’t that beautiful!” cried Hashi, suddenly pointing toward a pit which contained, apparently, all the broken glass tubing from the neon signs on the bars and restaurants. The shards formed a luminous carpet that sparkled when the wind blew, shifting the bits of glass to catch the sunlight at new angles.

Ryu Murakami twists these images of dilapidation so that decay becomes beautiful. Termites are seen as a ‘translucent curtain’; a pit of broken glass is a ‘luminous carpet’.

This transformative process goes on throughout the novel. Violence becomes elegant and repulsive images grab you. It is certainly not for the squeamish, but you can work that out just from the very first sentence:

The woman pushed on the baby’s stomach and sucked its penis into her mouth; it was thinner than the American menthols she smoked and a bit slimy, like raw fish.

Hashi and Kiku are two babies, who are found abandoned in coin-operated lockers. They are taken into an orphanage, where they become inseparable, and are then adopted as brothers. The novel follows their lives as they grow up and spin out in different directions.

Neither of them is able to shed his awful start in life, those early hours of being left in a coin locker. When they are at the orphanage, they start to show characteristics of autism and are taken to a therapist who plays them the sound of a heartbeat. They spend their lives haunted by this sound, and by other repressed memories from their early years.

Kiku and Hashi never manage to leave their coin lockers behind. As they grow up, they move into other suffocating institutions and bounded societies – orphanages, schools, a prison, a recording studio, the hold of a boat, a mental institution. The book abounds with these closed confining spaces, making stark opposites to the open, uncared for wild places beyond these walls. There is the abandoned town, described above, and ‘Toxitown’ – an imagined part of Tokyo where society’s castoffs live lawless lives of violence, prostitution and yet also freedom.

The original coin lockers come to stand for these other institutions and for society as a whole:

Nothing had changed, not one thing – not since he’d let out that first scream in the coin locker. The locker was bigger, maybe; the new one had a pool and gardens, with a band, people wandering about half-naked, and you could keep pets – yes this one had all kinds of shit; museums, movie theaters, and mental hospitals – but it was still a huge coin locker, and no matter how many layers of camouflage you had to dig through if you felt like digging, in the end you still ran up against a wall.

The two boys are always pushing against the walls that confine them. What Murakami does so brilliantly is conjure what is on the other side of those walls. Toxitown is a bleak vision of violence, a kind of anti-society. It is a dystopia in which the two boys seem to flourish. Murakami’s portrayal of this lawless world begs all sorts of questions: Would we become these sawed-off-shotgun-wielding crazies and glassy-eyed prostitutes if we didn’t play by the rules of society? Is this anti-society better than our current society? These difficult questions make for disturbing yet compelling reading.

Coin Locker Babies is one of four novels by Ryu Murakami published by Pushkin Press this week. Best known for publishing intelligent European classics, like Stefan Zweig (see this post) and Antal Szerb, these books by Murakami suggest that Pushkin is branching out to the rest of the world. While, on the face of it, Coin Locker Babies couldn’t be more different to something like Zweig’s Beware of Pity, both books are gripping and unexpected. They both suck you into a different, stranger world. I’m excited to see what Pushkin will publish next.

Ryu Murakami

Zweig Lovers Night

February 18, 2013

Valentine’s Day is a day that all sensible people dread. Being sensible, you know that it is ridiculous to get het up about whether or not you will receive a card, flowers, or candlelit dinner, and yet it’s almost impossible not to find yourself desperately wanting all of the above and feeling disproportionately let-down when they don’t quite materialise.

Keen to come up with a plan to avoid this perennial disappointment, I hastened to book tickets to Pushkin Press‘s ‘Zweig Lovers Night’ at the Austrian Cultural Centre. Here was a rare opportunity to do something enjoyable, thought-provoking and un-naf on Valentine’s Day. Surely I wouldn’t care about the lack of candlelit dinner or bunch of flowers with a feast of Stefan Zweig on the horizon.

The evening came around. The husband gave me a very thoughtful writerly card and together we hurried into a grand Knightsbridge house, excited to listen to Amanda Hopkinson, Ali Smith and Antony Beevor talk about why they love Stefan Zweig.

It was fascinating to hear a little of these different writers’ personal connections with his writing. Amanda Hopkinson talked about the editions she’d inherited from her mother, who had met the man himself. These very special books were autographed in Zweig’s signature violet ink, but she had been forced to sell them in order to pay the gas bill during a particularly tough time. Ali Smith talked about the magnetism of Zweig’s prose and read a passage from Fantastic Night, brilliantly capturing the rhythm of Anthea Bell’s translation. (Anthea Bell was there too, quietly approving of the proceedings.) Antony Beevor talked about Zweig as a writer of tremendous empathy and – of course – placed his writing in the context of historical events.

These writers were here as readers, and as they read aloud bits of Zweig’s writing, it was easy to remember why the rest of us readers were Zweig lovers too.

When I read Beware of Pity it felt like being put under a spell. The writing is incredibly intense, unbelievably gripping, forcing you to feel the narrator’s every thought. I felt transplanted inside Hofmiller’s head, into a world of elastic time, where a moment can stretch out into an eternity of pain – such as when he asks Edith to dance – or when a whole lifetime can be condensed into what feels like minutes – like when the Doctor tells him Kekesfalva’s story.

In Beware of Pity Zweig tells the story of Hofmiller – a young army officer who is posted to a small town at the beginning of the twentieth century. Soon he is invited to dinner at Kekesfalva Castle, the home of the richest man in the district, where Hofmiller is enchanted by the grandeur:

It does me good to eat at such an elegantly laid table in so bright and sparkling a room, with liveried servants behind me and the finest dishes in front of me … I have never eaten so well, or even dreamt that anyone could eat so well, so lavishly, could taste such delicacies.

After dinner, there is dancing, by which time Hofmiller is utterly intoxicated:

I hardly know what I am doing, I would like to embrace everyone, say something heartfelt, grateful to them all, I feel so light, so elated, so blissfully young. I whirl from partner to partner, I talk and laugh and dance, and never notice the time, carried away by the torrent of my pleasure.

Then he realises ‘to my alarm’ that he has been so caught up in the evening that he has rudely forgotten to ask the host’s daughter to dance. He searches her out and asks her, but:

Something terrible happens next. She had been leaning slightly forward, but now she flinches abruptly back as if avoiding a blow. At the same time the blood rushes into her pale cheeks, the lips that were half open just now are pressed hard together, and only her eyes keep staring at me with an expression of horror such as I have never seen in my life before … Suddenly she bursts into sobs, a wild, elemental sound like a stifled scream.

Hofmiller discovers that she is lame. He meant to be polite, but instead he has insulted and upset her.

This is his first encounter with the Kekesfalvas, but certainly not the last. Hofmiller’s feeling of pity towards the girl and her father embroils him in their lives … The drama plays out and he becomes more and more of a coward until eventually the First World War breaks out, in which he fights with seeming heroism. As Antony Beevor said on the night, it is a tremendous exploration of the gulf between moral cowardice and physical courage.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been completely gripped by Beware of Pity, sucked into Hofmiller’s head and bewitched by Zweig’s spell of a novel. So I was surprised to find this scathing article from an old London Review of Books about Stefan Zweig by Michael Hofman, best known as a translator of Joseph Roth, another celebrated writer of Vienna. Hofman says Zweig is a ‘uniquely dreary and clothy sprog of the electric 1880s’, the ‘Pepsi of Austrian writing’.

I can’t bear reading vitriolic reviews, and find it hard to understand how one writer can find such sadistic pleasure in ripping another to shreds. It would seem, in this plethora of insults, that Hofman finds Zweig to be a name-dropping fake. Admittedly, The World of Yesterday – his memoir about Austria at the beginning of the twentieth century – is full of names, and many of them famous ones. But I don’t see why he shouldn’t mention them if he knew them – isn’t that sort of the point of a memoir? Indeed Nicholas Lezard wrote in the Guardian that:

There are cameo appearances from almost all the major writers of the era (and quite a few musicians too): Gorky, Rilke, Hoffmansthal, Joyce and countless others appear, but, with typical generosity, Zweig prefers to dwell on those whom he fears posterity will overlook.

It is uncanny reading Nicholas Lezard’s review next to Michael Hofman’s – it is as though they are written about completely different books.

Perhaps we can concede that Zweig was a bit of a name-dropper, but Hofman is completely wrong to say that, like Pepsi, he ‘tastes fake’. There is nothing fake about Beware of Pity – it has the drunken reality of a nightmare, reality distorted into something particularly horrific, especially affecting. (Incidentally, Zweig wrote Beware of Pity when he was seeing rather a lot of Freud.) It is hyper-real – every detail has been coloured pixel by pixel.

I came away from Zweig Lover’s Night on Valentine’s Day with a rekindled passion. I’ve spent the days since rereading bits of The World of Yesterday and Beware of Pity and trying to decide which of Zweig’s novellas to read first.

The husband, also a Zweig lover, left the talk feeling hungry. ‘Oh no,’ he said, looking distraught and a bit guilty. ‘Sorry, I should have booked somewhere for dinner.’ The familiar Valentine’s Day disappointment flashed through me as that candlelit dinner once again faded from sight. I managed to shake it off as we walked through an eerie dark Hyde Park and then feasted on Lebanese food on Edgware Road. As we gobbled baba ghanoush, I couldn’t believe that we’d managed to have a fun evening on Valentine’s Day without being at all cheesy.

Just then, the restaurant switched on a spectacular soundtrack of 80s power ballads. It was as though they’d read my thoughts just as easily as Zweig lets us read Hofmiller’s.