20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, autofiction, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Sibilla Aleramo

‘A Woman’ by Sibilla Aleramo (translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell)

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 240 pages; 2020. Translated from the Italian by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell.

What a “cheery” book this turned out to be. I’m being facetious, of course, because Sibilla Aleramo’s A Woman, first published in 1906, makes for some depressing, albeit important and serious, reading.

Regarded as one of the earliest pieces of Italian feminist literature, it charts the experience of an unnamed Italian woman from girlhood until her mid-twenties at the turn of the 20th century.

During this time she gets married and has a child, but her husband is abusive and the story follows the narrator’s attempts to forge an independent life for herself — but it comes at a high price.

Said to be autofiction and therefore based on the author’s own experiences, it’s a startling and often shocking account of one woman’s determination to reject the life mapped out for her.

A false and petty life

This opening sentence sets the tone and mood for everything that follows:

My childhood was carefree and lively. Trying to resurrect that time now, to rekindle it in my mind, is a hopeless task.

The narrator, looking back on what she describes as a “false and petty” life, reveals how happy she was as a young girl, the oldest child of a middle-class Italian family whose father doted on her.

When the family move from Milan to a rural location so that her father can take up an important job running a factory, she leaves school and begins working for her father as an administrator. She loves the sense of purpose the role gives her, but it’s a false sense of independence because her life as a woman is already mapped out for her: she must marry, have children and be “naturally submissive and servile”.

An unhappy marriage

As a 16-year-old she develops a crush on a factory worker many years her senior. He takes advantage of her youth and brutally rapes her, but she’s naive enough to think he loves her. They marry and have a child. It is not a match made in heaven.

He begins to control every facet of her life and restricts her to one room in the house. Unsurprisingly, she becomes depressed and yearns for something more. The only thing that appears to keep her sane is an undying love for her young son and a passion for writing.

For a while he maintained his prohibitions and I continued not to go out, spending long afternoons shut indoors with a controlled amount of writing paper for correspondence, not allowed to see anyone apart from my relatives, the doctor and the housemaid – all under the pretence of ample freedom, but with such crude surveillance that I would have found it amusing were it not for the fact that at still not twenty-one years old my life had become so irremediably joyless.

It’s not all bad. Eventually, her talent as a writer affords her an opportunity to become a journalist. She makes a name for herself writing about feminist issues and social inequality for a publication based in Rome but she has to tread a fine line between dutiful wife and successful career woman.

Self-indulgent story

The book, which by its very nature is quite self-indulgent, details the narrator’s thoughts and feelings and philosophies on life, her outrage at the divide between the way men and women must live their lives, and the double standards when it comes to love and marriage.

It is confronting in places, especially when she is subject to nightly terrors in the bedroom (it’s not described in detail, but it’s clear her husband rapes her whenever he wants sex) and partly blames her own family for allowing her to be married to a man who treats her so badly.

And how can she become a woman if her relatives hand her over ignorant, weak and immature to a man who does not receive her as an equal; who uses her like an object that he owns, gives her children which he abandons to her sole care while he fulfils his social duties, and while he continues to childishly amuse himself?

When her own mother has a psychological breakdown and is admitted to an asylum, the narrator begins to understand that she may be headed down the same path and that despite her attempts to be her own person she is, effectively, just reenacting her own mother’s life. It’s a depressing realisation.

According to the author blurb, Sibilla Aleramo (1876-1960) was the pseudonym of Marta Felicina Faccio, who was an Italian author and poet best known for producing some of the first feminist writing in Italy and for her autobiographical depictions of life as a woman in late 19th-century Italy. She was a recipient of the prestigious Viareggio Rèpaci award and was active in political and artistic circles throughout her adult life.

This is my 1st book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 22 June 2020 for the princely sum of 99p. I have no idea what prompted me to buy it because I’ve never read a review of it. Perhaps I just liked the cover?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Håkan Nesser, Publisher, Setting, Sweden, World Editions

‘The Summer of Kim Novak’ by Håkan Nesser (translated by Saskia Vogel)

Fiction – paperback; World Editions; 217 pages; 2020. Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel.

I’m going to tell you about a tragic and terrible event that marked my life — let’s call it “The Incident”. That fateful event is the reason I remember the summer of 1962 more clearly than any other summer of my youth. It has cast a dark shadow over so much.

So begins Håkan Nesser’s The Summer of Kim Novak, which follows the exploits of 14-year-old Erik who is drawn into an adult world of sex and drama that is beyond his ken. When the book jumps ahead 25 years, we meet an older, more reflective Erik looking back on that formative summer, analysing what happened and tidying away the loose ends that have plagued him for so long.

Most people will know that Håkan Nesser is regarded as one of Sweden’s foremost crime writers, but The Summer of Kim Novak is more akin to a coming-of-age tale that just so happens to have a murder in it. It’s not a police procedural nor is it a typical whodunnit or whydunnit. But it does have a surprise ending in which the offender is revealed, albeit too late to bring to justice because the (Swedish) statute of limitations has expired.

A dreamy boy obsessed with girls

When the book opens we meet Erik, the first-person narrator, who is a dreamy boy, obsessed with girls. He speaks in stock phrases he’s picked up from films and the adults around him, and secretly works on a comic book starring a hero called “Colonel Darkin”.

He has a crush on his relief teacher, Ewa Kaludis, who bears a striking resemblance to the Hollywood film actress Kim Novak.

She didn’t have to teach us. There was no need. We were plugging away. Whenever she entered the classroom, we sat in rapt silence. She would smile and her eyes sparkled. It gave us all the chills. Then she would sit down on the teacher’s desk, cross one leg over the other, and tell us to keep working on one page or another. Her voice reminded me of a purring cat.

When school finishes for the year, his father, a prison guard who works long shifts, warns him it’s going to be a rough summer. His mother is in hospital with cancer and it’s unlikely she will ever come home.

It’s arranged that Erik’s much older brother, Henry, a freelance reporter, will look after him during the long summer holiday before school resumes. Henry is taking the summer off to write a book and is staying in a summer house, which belongs to a relative, by Lake Möckeln, about 25km away.

Erik is allowed to bring his friend Edmund with him for company, and the pair are pretty much left to their own devices, swimming in the lake, fishing off the dock, cycling through the forest or hanging out in the nearest town. It’s a happy, carefree existence.

One evening they attend a summer fair and spot their teacher, Ewa, in the crowd. It turns out she’s engaged to be married, and her financé is a big-shot handball player, Bertil “Super-Berra” Albertsson. But when they witness Super-Berra beating up another man, leaving him for dead, they’re suddenly afraid for Ewa.

Later, when Henry begins bringing Ewa home with him, both Erik and Edmund are astonished, not least because Ewa now appears to be Henry’s girlfriend. No mention is made of her financé until she turns up one day with a black eye and a split lip…

Early novel

The Summer of Kim Novak was written in 1998, making it one of Nesser’s early novels — he has more than 30 to his name — but it took 20 years before it was translated into English.

I haven’t read anything else by him, so I don’t know how indicative this story is of his style, but it did feel rather basic and not particularly compelling. Perhaps because it’s essentially a coming-of-age story, there were some aspects of it that reminded me of Per Petterson’s work, but it has a very male mindset that I found a little troublesome.

I never really warmed to Erik’s tone of voice, particularly his attitude to girls (or “foxy skirts” as he once refers to them) — “If you missed your chance with one, there’d be a thousand more to take her place” — but knowing that it was written from the point of view of a 14-year-old boy I was prepared to cut some slack. Plus, I never subscribe to the theory that you have to like a character to like a story.

But even when we are reacquainted with Erik as an adult (towards the end of the novel the narrative jumps ahead by 25 years), he’s still obsessed with Ewa and prepared to risk his marriage to be with her. It all makes sense in the end though; I just can’t explain how at the risk of giving away crucial plot spoilers.

The Summer of Kim Novak showcases the agonies and ecstasies of young adolescence against the backdrop of a single languid life-changing summer. It’s a quick read with a surprise ending and was adapted for the screen in 2005 under the title Kim Novak Never Swam in Genesaret’s Lake.

 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Men in My Situation’ by Per Petterson (translated by Ingvild Burkey)

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 291 pages; 2021. Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.

The light from inside sifted gently down over the snow on the pavement, and the street lamps turned everything yellow and each street lamp had its own circle and no circle touched another and between them there was silence.

The King of Melancholia returns with what may possibly be his best novel yet.

Men in My Situation features many of Per Petterson’s trademarks:

✔️ A solo man, with working-class roots, a bit down on his luck and prone to introspection

✔️ A focus on past relationships (both sexual and familial) and how they have panned out

✔️ An emphasis on place

✔️ An exploration of grief, occasionally manifesting in violence

✔️ Loneliness, regret, melancholia and depression

And it’s written in prose, translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey, that is assured, eloquent and evocative, ripe with detailed and often beautiful descriptions of snow-filled landscapes and city streets.

Arvid is adrift

In this tale, we meet a recurring character, Arvid, who is 38 and newly divorced. (He was a teenager in Echoland; 37 and heading for divorce in I Curse the River of Time; and 43 in In the Wake.)

He’s a mildly successful writer (enough to be recognised by people in the street, anyway), but things aren’t going particularly well for him. He’s alone and adrift, desperately missing his three daughters, and clinging to the routines that mean something to him: driving his old Mazda around the quiet streets of Oslo (and sometimes sleeping in the car), going to bars and drowning his sorrows in booze, and occasionally going home with women for meaningless sex.

The breakdown of his marriage haunts him. He knew things were getting bad when he and his wife, Turid, stopped going to bed at the same time — “We’d become like magnets with identical poles turned towards each other, plus to plus, minus to minus” —  and started quarrelling more about silly things that “suddenly blew out of control”:

I didn’t understand why and wanted it to stop, I wanted to get away from it, but I didn’t know how, we were like two bicycle wheels stuck in a tram rail, and it felt ominous because she was unafraid whereas I wasn’t, and a trapdoor beneath my feet might open any second.

But overshadowing this is a fog of grief: a year earlier his parents and two brothers died in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster and he’s wrestling with how to process this loss. (Petterson himself lost his mother, father, young brother and a niece in the disaster, and it’s a recurring episode in the Arvid novels.)

Arvid measures time in the distance between his wife leaving him and the ship burning.

I thought, how does one measure grief, is there a yardstick for grieving, is there any difference, say, between grieving for one person as opposed to two or three persons, or even four, as in my case, did all this fit on a yardstick, or could the level of grief register as on an instrument, such as a Geiger counter, and the closer the instrument got to the full power, the full height, the full number, the faster and louder the instrument would emit its familiar beep. And how was I to know when there was grief enough, and if grief was liquid like melting silver, could one then pour the grief into a litre measure and conclude, under these circumstances, eight decilitres ought to be sufficient, and let the silver congeal hard and shiny not far below the rim. How was I to know.

Deeply introspective narrative

There’s not much of a plot, but this is not unusual in Per Petterson’s work. Instead, we get a deeply introspective narrative about a divorcé grappling with fatherhood and newfound circumstances, of a man who is acutely aware of his weaknesses but not confident enough to overcome them, someone who wants to be a better person but isn’t sure it’s worth the effort.

He fills in his time trying to repair the relationship with his young daughters — his eldest no longer wants to spend time with him, and she’s convinced her young siblings likewise — and getting back in touch with his old childhood friend, Audun. (Petterson fans will recognize Audun from an earlier novel, It’s Fine by Me.)

There’s a terrifying sequence in which he takes his daughters on a road trip, only to run off the road doing a dangerous, unthinking manoeuvre in a pique of anger, and while no one is injured, Arvid is aware that if his wife finds out his access to the girls may be taken away. The slide into desperation, of keeping secrets from his ex-wife and of behaving recklessly, becomes more acute as the story progresses.

But it’s not all predictable. Arvid’s melancholia and his tendency toward self-pity come into sharp relief when he discovers that his eldest daughter has health issues. This forces him to play the role of a caring, dedicated father, someone reliable and trusting, someone who can rise above “men in my situation” to do something positive and helpful.

The book ends on an optimistic note.

For another take on this novel, please see Joe’s review at Roughghosts.

Atria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Holland/Netherlands, literary fiction, Marjolijn van Heemstra, Publisher, Setting

‘In Search of a Name: A Novel’ by Marjolijn van Heemstra (translated by Jonathan Reeder)

Fiction – paperback; Atria International; 198 pages; 2020. Translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder.

Marjolijn van Heemstra, is a Dutch poet. Her beguiling novella In Search of a Name feels like a memoir but is actually a fictionalised account of her family history.

In this tale, originally published in the Netherlands in 2017, the narrator is a woman called Marjolijn, who is pregnant and trying to determine her unborn son’s name.

She has inherited a signet ring that belonged to her great uncle — a hero of the Dutch Resistance in the Second World War — and has promised her late grandmother, who bestowed it her, that she would name her firstborn after him.

But while Marjolijn likes the grand-sounding name — Frans Julius Johan — her partner, D, isn’t so sure. He challenges the idea of naming their baby after a man that neither of them knows very little about, apart from a story that’s been handed down within the family and may or may not be true.

D is right again. What I know can be summed up in a single sentence: Resistance hero delivers a parcel bomb disguised as a Sinterklaas present to an ex-Nazi.
I write “bomb”, but according to the family narrative, the bomb was always a “little bomb”, the Blackshirt was a “rat”, and Bommenneef [the nickname for her great uncle] “a rascal”. It was my grandmother’s generation that kept the tale alive, repeating it every chance they got, to whoever would listen. Rascal startles rat with bomblet.

Reads like a crime thriller

What follows is a highly personal detective story that reads like a historical crime thriller as Marjolijn seeks to find out the truth about her great uncle. Were his actions heroic? Or is there a darker side to the tale?

Her research takes her across the country — and even to Spain — as she tracks down leads and hunts out clues. She meets distant relatives, befriends fellow researchers working in the national archives and finds herself immersed in confidential dossiers, biased news stories and incomplete paperwork.

My irritation grows with every step. Why didn’t anyone take the trouble just to write down what happened? Why must I now make do with a couple of barely legible Ausweises and a pile of junk from a desk drawer? A bomb exploded, people were killed and men were sent to jail, lives were compromised, and all that’s left is this two-bit legend full of holes and cracks.

Working to a deadline

The book is structured around Marjolijn’s growing pregnancy — each chapter is headed with the number of weeks to go before her baby’s arrival — to hammer home the point that she’s working to a deadline.

Further suspense is created by the growing tension within Marjolijn’s relationship with her partner and her decision to ignore health advice when she is diagnosed with high blood pressure as a possible precursor to eclampsia.

When it looks likely that the birth may have to be induced, Marjolijn’s sense of panic is heightened, not by the birth itself, but at the lack of time to determine if her great uncle’s name is worthy of being handed down.

[…] my son has to be given the right name, and to do that I have to have the right story, and since the story I had turns out to be inaccurate I have to at least come up with a good ending — all’s well that ends well — but at the moment I am stuck in a cul-de-sac of unanswered emails and Facebook messages and I haven’t put anything right or even gotten my head around things, there are only questions that lead to more questions, I don’t even know any more if this is about courage and justice, who knows, maybe now it’s about chaos and regret.

Who knew that a story about research methods could be so exciting?

Blurred lines

What I liked most about In Search of a Name is the way the author teases out the blurred lines between fact and fiction, where nothing is as black and white as it might seem, and where family mythology, passed down from generation to generation, gains potency — and embellishment — over time.

At its heart, this novel is about truth and the ways in which it can become obfuscated, whether by accident or design.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Peter Handke, Publisher, Setting

‘The Left-Handed Woman’ by Peter Handke (translated by Ralph Manheim)

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 68 pages; 2020. Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim.

Perhaps because it was written in 1976 when the idea of a woman being independent was more radical than it is now, Peter Handke’s novella The Left-Handed Woman is a relatively odd story.

Written in cool, detached prose, it explores what happens (hint: not very much) when a woman called Marianne decides to leave her husband.

She has a young child, Stefan, but it’s hard to know how old he is other than he goes to school. Her husband, Bruno, runs a porcelain company and is often away on business trips. Perhaps this is why she gets it into her head that one day Bruno will leave her permanently and so she makes the first move: she asks him to move out of the marital home.

There’s no argument, no pleading, no reaction really at all. It’s all very strange.

Bruno smiled and said, “Well, right now I’ll go back to the hotel and get myself a cup of hot coffee. And this afternoon I’ll come and take my things.”
There was no malice in the woman’s answer — only thoughtful concern. “I’m sure you can move in with Franziska for the first few days. Her teacher friend has gone away.”

And so Bruno moves out and into Franziska’s spare room and that’s kind of it. (Of course, we never really hear his side of the story, so perhaps he’s relieved he doesn’t have to deal with his wife any more?)

The woman takes a job as a translator for a publisher, who comes to her house armed with flowers and Champagne. The overtones are slightly creepy. He knows she is alone.

Over the course of the next few days and weeks, Marianne is visited by lots of different people, including her father, Franziska and Bruno, because they are worried about her being alone. “Don’t be alone too much,” her husband warns her, “it could be the death of you”.

And while Marianne does go through a period of adjustment — avoiding people in the supermarket, staring into space a lot, sinking into a kind of malaise and cutting herself off from others — she realises that she can survive perfectly well on her own.

The final scenes of the novella have almost everyone Marianne knows — and those she’s only just met, including an actor, her publisher’s chauffer and a random salesgirl with whom she’s recently interacted — arriving at her house for a spontaneous party. It’s only when they are gone and she is able to relax and put her feet up that a sense of contentment settles upon her. Perhaps having a life of one’s own will be okay after all.

This is a strange novella. The conversations between characters are often vague and dispassionate. People behave in odd ways and say odd things. The overall feeling is one of confusion, discombobulation, frustration and angst.

The main message I came away with is reflected by the afterword, a quote by Goethe from his 1809 novel Elective Affinities, which could well sum up what it has been like living in the grips of a global pandemic:

And so they all, each in his own way, reflectingly or unreflectingly, go on with their daily lives; everything seems to take its accustomed course, for indeed, even in desperate situations where everything hangs in the balance, one goes on living as though nothing were wrong.

Peter Handke won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2019, not without controversy (see this New York Times story and this Guardian opinion piece). I have previously read his 1970 novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, which is a cold-eyed account of a once famous soccer player committing a brutal murder.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Deon Meyer, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Woman in the Blue Cloak’ by Deon Meyer (translated by K.L. Seegers)

Fiction – paperback; Hodder & Stoughton; 141 pages; 2018. Translated from Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers.

Deon Meyer’s The Woman in the Blue Cloak captured my attention when I saw it on the shelves of my local library because it was:

✔️ a novella;

✔️ a crime story;

✔️ the crime involved art from the Dutch Golden Age;

✔️ it had an evocative setting (South Africa); and

✔️ it was translated fiction.

It also helped I had read Meyer’s work before (Blood Safari in 2015, which was excellent), so I knew I could trust him to write a well crafted, intelligent crime story with plenty of social commentary.

Murder of a tourist

Despite the fact it starts with a tired old trope — the murder of a beautiful woman (sigh) — The Woman in the Blue Cloak is not a conventional murder story.

For a start, the victim, Alicia Lewis, is a foreigner on a flying visit to South Africa. She’s an American based in London who works for an organisation that recovers lost or stolen works of art.

When her body is found naked and washed in bleach, draped on a wall beside a road in Cape Town, the police investigation begins by trying to identify her, before looking into a motive for the crime and locating the perpetrator.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

I’m not going to give away plot spoilers, but I think it’s safe to say Ms Lewis had been in South Africa to track down a rare painting by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius. (Fabritius is probably most famous for his painting The Goldfinch, from 1654, and the one that features in Donna Tartt’s novel of the same name.)

The police investigation traces the root of the crime all the way back to the 17th century, before concluding with a relatively neat ending that, to be perfectly frank, didn’t quite convince me — although it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of this well-told story.

Entertaining police procedural

The Woman in the Blue Cloak (the title refers to the name of the Fabritius painting that Ms Lewis is trying to locate) is an intriguing police procedural set in a culturally diverse part of the world grappling with all kinds of racial and political tensions, long after Apartheid has fallen by the wayside.

It’s the sixth book in Meyer’s Detective Benny Griessel series but it works as a standalone. I haven’t read the previous books in the series and it certainly didn’t impact my enjoyment or understanding of this story.

I particularly liked the camaraderie — and the lively banter — between Griessel and his colleague Vaugh Cupido, and the ways in which they worked together to achieve a result.

Griessel spends the entirety of the investigation being distracted by a personal dilemma — he’s trying to secure a bank loan so that he can buy an engagement ring. His impecunious situation is nicely contrasted with the value of the Fabritius painting, believed to be worth a hundred million dollars.

This is an enjoyable novella, tightly written, fast-paced and well plotted. What more could you want from a crime story?

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Germany, Picador, Publisher, Ralf Rothmann, Setting, war

‘To Die in Spring’ by Ralf Rothmann (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 208 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside.

Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring tells the tale of two 17-year-old boys enlisted to fight for Germany at the tail end of the Second World War.

Reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic Great War novel All Quiet on the Western Front (first published in 1929), it’s a story that highlights the futility of war — from a German perspective.

Senseless bloodshed

Walter ‘Ata’ Urban and Friedrich ‘Fiete’ Caroli are dairy hands forced to “volunteer” in the Waffen-SS, the military branch of the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS) organisation. It’s 1945 and the war is entering its final stages. Both are reluctant to join. Fiete knows it is all a con:

They didn’t drag us across the whole of the Reich just so that we can peel potatoes behind the front. We’re fresh fodder, and we’ll be fed to the enemy.

After minimal training, the two are split up fairly early: Fiete goes to the front, where he is injured almost immediately, while Walter becomes a driver for a supply unit.

The story is told in the third person but largely from Walter’s perspective. While his role does not involve direct combat, what he witnesses on the road is no less gruesome or confronting — from the field hospital tents, where he could “hear groaning and screaming from behind the tarpaulins” to seeing partisans being tortured by his superiors who laugh while they do it.

Somewhere along the line, he hears that his father, a camp guard at Dachau, has been deployed to the front as a form of punishment because “he gave some cigs away to camp prisoners”. Later, he learns that he has died, and while father and son were not close — “Well, he wasn’t exactly a role model. He drank and hit me and felt up my sister” — Walter feels obliged to find his grave to pay his respects.

He is given a few days’ leave and the loan of a motorbike to carry out his search, which plunges him closer and closer to the front and where, by a great stroke of luck, he comes across his friend Fiete again. But the reunion is a tragic one.

A beautiful and powerful read

To Die in Spring is a gripping read about innocent farm boys having to grow up very quickly in a war that is not of their own making. Or as Fiete tells Walter:

Christ, what am I doing here? I mean, if I had voted for Hitler, like most of them… But I wanted nothing to do with this mess, any more than you did. I have no enemies, at least none that want to kill me. This is a war for cynics, who don’t believe in anything but might makes right… when in fact they’re only mediocrities and weaklings, I found that out in the field. Kick downwards, bow and scrape upwards, and massacre women and children.

It’s poignant and heartbreaking, full of vivid descriptions, whether of peaceful wintry landscapes or bawdy pubs and dancehalls, but its true power lies in the way it depicts a generation raised by men — damaged by a previous war — who are forced to repeat history.

For the contemporary reader, aware of the very many atrocities carried out by the Nazis, To Die in Spring does not overlook the barbarity of those men, nor does it wallow in self-pity or guilt. It simply offers up a haunting, searing — and compassionate — story, and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy and Caroline. The book is short enough to also qualify for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. This is what you call killing two birds with one stone!

Amos Oz, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, holocaust, Israel, Poland, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, war

‘Touch the Water, Touch the Wind’ by Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange)

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 158 pages; 1992. Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange in collaboration with the author.

It’s not often a book goes over my head, but I’m afraid this 1973 novella by Amos Oz was a bit lost on me.

Touch the Water, Touch the Wind was the author’s fourth work of fiction.

The story arc traces what happens to a married couple after they are separated in 1939 during the Second World War and then reunited on the eve of the Six Day War in 1967.

When the Nazis advance into Poland, Elisha Pomeranz, a Jewish watchmaker and mathematician, evades capture by hiding in the woods not far from his home, reinventing himself as a magician and woodcutter. His wife, Stepha, stays behind, using her beauty and intelligence to survive.

When the war ends, Stepha moves to Moscow and becomes a high-ranking member of the Communist Party, Elisha makes his way to the Jewish homeland, via Austria, Hungary, Romania and Greece.

A master of reinvention

The story is mainly focused on Elisha’s experience, for when he arrives in Palestine he sets up a watchmaker’s shop and settles into a fairly routine, mundane life but one in which he is happy.

Later, after a sordid affair with an American woman who turns up on his doorstep, he worries that he is being watched by forces unknown. To become invisible, he reinvents himself as a shepherd tending a small flock on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country, where he tutors science to local schoolchildren to get by.

Later, he writes an important research paper that is published in a scientific periodical, attracting the attention of the world’s press and scientific community.

The article is by no means modest or insignificant : according to the headlines in the evening newspaper he has succeeded in solving one of the most baffling paradoxes connected with the mathematical concept of infinity.

But while some doubt the authenticity of Elisha’s discovery, his fame offers a form of protection.

Eventually, things come to a head on the kibbutz for even those in a position of power, while cognizant of the fact that they have a “mathematical genius” living amongst them, doubt his commitment to the cause.

A collage of prose styles

There’s a lot in this short novella that went over my head, perhaps because I just don’t know enough about the different aspects to Jewish life and history, but more likely because it’s written in an unusual style that I found hard to like.

The first third in particular reads like a Gothic fairytale with elements of magic realism thrown in for good measure making for pretty heavy going. There are later sections that feel like reportage, while others are lyrical and dotted with beautiful descriptions of landscapes and scenery. This constant switching in style made it hard to get a handle on the story as a whole.

That said, I suspect this collage of prose styles is deliberate. Because if I got anything out of this difficult novella it is that Jewish people have survived for centuries by using all kinds of techniques, whether that be assimilating, going to ground or pretending to be something that they are not in order to get by. For instance, Elisha’s constant reinvention of himself, first to evade the horrors of the Holocaust and later to avoid those pursuing him for nefarious purposes, is mirrored by the author’s constant change in prose style and tempo.

The text is also heavy with religious and sexual metaphors that began to wear very thin.

Not having read anything by Amos Oz before, I’m not sure how this book fits into his oeuvre and whether it’s indicative of his work as a whole. I’d be interested in hearing from others who have read his books and can perhaps suggest another novel that may be more suited to my tastes.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

Algeria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, historical fiction, Joseph Andras, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Verso

‘Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us’ by Joseph Andras (translated by Simon Leser)

Fiction – paperback; Verso; 136 pages; 2021. Translated from the French by Simon Leser.

Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us is a short, powerful novella by French writer Joseph Andras.

Set at the height of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), it is based on the life of Fernand Iveton, a Communist working for the National Liberation Front (FLN), who was the only European executed during the War.

A highly unusual case

Fernand Iveton’s case is highly unusual for many reasons, so it is easy to see why an author might wish to tell his story. First, Iveton was a “pied-noir”  — a person of French origin living in French-ruled Algeria  (his mother was a Spanish Catholic and his father was French) — working on the anti-colonialist side.

Second, the bomb he planted in his locker at the power station where he worked was designed to go off when no one was in the building. He claims he did not want to kill people; he simply wanted to send a message to the authorities. In any event, he was arrested and the bomb located and defused before it ever went off.

And third, his trial lasted a single day, after which he was sentenced to death despite the fact he was not responsible for killing or injuring anyone. Attempts to have his sentence commuted by the then French president René Coty failed, and he was executed by guillotine on 11 February 1957.

Condemned to death

The story opens with Iveton preparing to plant the bomb provided to him by his accomplices, Jacqueline and Abdelkader Guerroudj, and closes with his death. (His accomplices were arrested and tried later, but neither were executed.)

In between, we learn about his arrest, interrogation and the ways in which he was tortured (mainly by electrocution and waterboarding). Later, we see how his lawyers tried to push for his death sentence to be commuted, but a high profile campaign in France had painted him as a terrorist and murderer and there was no room to sway popular opinion.

To offer some light relief, the narrative also traces Iveton’s romance and subsequent marriage to Hélène, a Polish woman who grew up in France and was a partisan in the French Resistance during the Second World War. They met when Iveton came to Paris to get an X-ray for a lung problem (which turned out to be tuberculosis) and she was a waitress at the hotel in which he was staying.

Fernand sits down and orders the set meal. Her eyes are little frosted pearls, she smiles and goes off with his order, explicit creases at the back of her skirt, ankles as slender as her wrists…

When he returns to Algeria, he paves the way for Hélène to join him, along with her son, Jean-Claude, from her first marriage, and together they set up a happy home.

Armed struggle

The strength of the story is to highlight how the “armed struggle” is never black-and-white and that people choosing to pursue violence for political ends have their reasons for doing so.

Our client is conscious of fighting for more than himself [Iveton’s lawyers tell the President of France]. He’s fighting for his country, which he wants to see free and happy, a country which guarantees to each and every one of its citizens, Muslim or European, freedom of thought and equality. Our client wants nothing else.

I came away from it thinking how history just keeps endlessly repeating and how it’s just the countries, and perhaps the religions, that change. This story, for instance, could so easily be transferred to Northern Ireland in the 1970s or the Basque Country at any time in the 50 years leading up to 2011.

Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us was awarded France’s top literary prize for debut novels, the prix Goncourt du premier roman, in 2016, but the author declined to accept it, claiming that he didn’t believe writing should be a competition.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Penguin, Philippe Besson, Publisher, Setting

‘Lie With Me’ by Philippe Besson

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 148 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Molly Ringwald.

The passion that can’t be talked about, that has to be concealed, gives way to the terrible question: if it isn’t talked about, how can one know that it really exists?

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson is a bittersweet novella about first love between two teenage boys in rural France in the 1980s.

Their affair, kept hidden because of the shame surrounding homosexuality at the time, begins in winter but is over by the summer. During those few intense months, their love is passionate but furtive. For both boys, it is a sexual awakening that has long-lasting repercussions on how they live the rest of their lives.

A story in three parts

The story is divided into three parts — 1984, 2007 and 2016 — each of which is narrated by Philippe, a famous writer, who fell in love with a boy at his small French high school when he was 17 years old.

In the first section, he details the affair he had with Thomas Andrieu, whom he had admired from afar for quite some time before Thomas, who was a year older than him, issued a surprise invitation.

In the second, more than 20 years after their affair ends, Philippe runs into Thomas’s doppelganger — only to discover that the good looking young man is, in fact, Thomas’s son, Lucas.

In the third and desperately sad final part, Lucas gets in touch with Philippe to impart some news about his father.

An old story told in a new way

Of course, we have read this kind of story about forbidden love before. Perhaps what makes this novella different (aside from the fact it has been translated by Hollywood actress Molly Ringwald) is that it reveals what happens when people are not allowed to be their authentic selves.

In the aftermath of the affair between two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, we come to understand how their sexual orientation shapes the rest of their lives: one man embraces his homosexuality and is comfortable in his own skin, while the other gets married and tries to be someone he is not — with tragic consequences.

The novella is written in a deeply melancholic style and is completely free of sentiment. The prose is sensual, tender and filled with longing.

This feeling of love, it transports me, it makes me happy. At the same time, it consumes me and makes me miserable, the way all impossible loves are miserable.

Emotional detachment

But as much as I admired the beautiful writing, I found it hard to connect with the protagonists, not because I didn’t understand nor empathise with their predicament, but because the narrator’s voice is so cool and aloof I felt one step removed from the story. And yet, this is a terribly sad tale about thwarted opportunity, lost love and the inability to live an authentic life. It should have wrecked me; instead I felt emotionally detached.

Several reviews I have read have drawn comparisons with André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. I have not read that book but I have seen the film adaptation, which is so beautiful and EMOTIONAL and absolutely DEVASTATING that I bawled like a baby at the end. It’s kind of how I thought this one would affect me, but it didn’t.

That said, Lie With Me has been adorned with praise (including from Aciman himself) and been a bestseller in France. It won the prestigious Maison de la Presse Prize in 2017 when it was first published.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Lock Elliott: Australian classic about a gay man hiding his real self from the world in the 1930s and 40s when homosexuality was illegal.

‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John MacKenna: A heart-rending Irish novel about a newly widowed school teacher recalling his love affair with a man 10 years earlier.