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.

Austria, Author, Book review, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, John Leake, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery’ by John Leake

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 240 pages; 2012.

More than a decade ago I read a riveting true crime book by John Leake called The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life, about a murderer in jail who convinced Austria’s literary elite that he was rehabilitated — though he was anything but.

Until recently (when I recommended this book in a  6 Degrees of Separation post), it had never occurred to me to see what else this talented journalist might have written.

A quick perusal of the internet revealed that Leake had written another true crime book, also set in Austria, which he had self-published in 2012 because it was too niche for any mainstream publisher to pick up.

I purchased it on Kindle and found myself immersed in a strange and mysterious story about an enormous cover-up that seemed too unbelievable to be true.

Mystery in the alps

The book focuses on the mysterious disappearance in 1989 of a young Canadian man on holiday in Austria and the subsequent 20-year search his parents conducted in a bid to find out what happened to him.

Duncan MacPherson was a talented professional ice hockey player who had accepted a player-coaching role in Scotland. En route to his new employment, he visited Continental Europe to catch up with friends and do some solo travelling, but after being spotted snowboarding on a beginner slope he was never seen again.

His parents, Lynda and Bob, who were worried about the lack of communication, alerted authorities. Help was not particularly forthcoming. The pair flew to Europe to see what they could unearth themselves, but police and consular staff were unhelpful and dismissive.

When they eventually found Duncan’s car six weeks later at the Stubai Glacier, a popular ski resort near Innsbruck, it was difficult to understand why no one had noticed it; there were no other vehicles around and it stuck out like a sore thumb.

Unfortunately, as Leake’s detailed book reveals, this was the first of many “clues” that were ignored by authorities, which included the ski resort, police, search-and-rescue staff and forensic specialists. Over the next 20 years, Duncan’s parents logged a never-ending succession of blunders, mistakes and concealments that suggested not everyone was being honest with them, which begged the question: what were people trying to hide?

Painstaking detail

Cold A Long Time covers the entire case in painstaking detail. In true detective style, Leake does an enormous amount of investigative research, interviews experts, local law enforcement and almost everyone he can who is connected with the case, to suggest what happened to Duncan and to explain why his disappearance was covered up — and by whom.

It is a compelling read. It’s shocking in places, not least the appalling ways in which the MacPhersons are treated by almost everyone they meet; their concerns dismissed, played down or simply ignored, their pursuit of justice thwarted at every turn. The one forensic doctor who befriends them and earns their trust turns out to have an agenda that did not have their best interests at heart.

If nothing else, this story, with all its twists and turns and its series of appalling mistakes and concealments, is testament to a mother’s love for her son and her enduring patience, tenacity and courage to uncover the truth about his disappearance. There is heartbreak and frustration and anger and disbelief on almost every page. It’s a book full of emotion and yet it’s written in a clear, detached voice, albeit one that is eloquent and compassionate, one that actually moved me to tears by the time I got to the end.

Cold A Long Time won a Bronze Medal in the True Crime category of the 2012 Independent Publisher Awards. It is an excellent read and one that will stay with me for a long time.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Linda Stift, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘The Empress and the Cake’ by Linda Stift

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 172 pages; 2016. Translated from the Austrian German by Jamie Bulloch.

Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake is part of Peirene Press’ Fairy Tale Series. It’s an eccentric and twisted tale, first published under the German-language title Stierhunger in 2007, that retells the story of Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s obsession with keeping slim. Or at least I think that’s what it’s doing.

This is an odd story, a multi-layered story, a story that isn’t all that it seems. But the one abiding theme is appetite. How do we feed it, how do we control it, how does it control us?

When the story opens a young women is tempted by a cake in a pastry shop. The cake, which is known as Gugelhupf, is offered to her by an old lady, Frau Hohenemb, a stranger whom she meets on the street who has carefully noted the scars on her knuckles. (Scarred knuckles are a sign of bulimia, caused by putting your hand in your mouth to make you gag.)

The young woman, who narrates the story, then accepts an invitation to go back to Frau Hohenemb’s house to eat the cake with a cup of tea. From thereon in, the young woman becomes trapped in a kind of interdependent relationship with the old lady who may, or may not, be Empress Sissi herself. Yes, I told you it was a bit bonkers.

Over the course of this short novel (it’s just 172 pages long), the young woman gets caught up in a whole bunch of strange activities involving Frau Hohenemb and her housekeeper, Ida, including blowing up a statue of the Empress, visiting a sex museum and  stealing a royal cocaine syringe on public display. Along the way the narrator’s past life as a bulimic is retriggered and she enters a new pattern of gorging and purging on food.

The Empress and the Cake is a grotesque sort of horror story that shows how the slow erosion of willpower can be detrimental to wellbeing. It also highlights the idea that control and power can come from unusual and unexpected sources. Greed, addiction and cruelty are all themes underpinning the central storyline. I read it with a mixture of fascination and abhorrence. Do try it if you are looking for something utterly different to anything you’ve read before.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, historical fiction, Jenny Erpenbeck, literary fiction, Portobello Books, Publisher, Setting

‘The End of Days’ by Jenny Erpenbeck

End-of-days

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 280 pages; 2014. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Every November bloggers Caroline and Lizzy host German Literature Month, which is a good excuse to dig out those German language books languishing in my TBR. This year, however, I decided to treat myself to a new novel, which is how I came to buy Jenny Erpenbeck’s award-winning and critically acclaimed The End of Days at Waterstone’s late last month.

One woman’s life

The novel, which is broken up into five parts, tells the story of one woman’s life from cradle to grave. But it does not follow the normal narrative conventions, for at the end of each part cruel fate steps in and the protagonist dies.

But then the author plays with the idea of “what if?” and the next section of the book explores what might have happened if the (unnamed) woman had continued to live.

All this is played out against the backdrop of Europe’s turbulent 20th century history, including anti-Semitism, the rise of the Third Reich, and Communism.

It’s a neat way to explore how chance and choice and the little decisions we make every day can have a big  impact on our lives, and begs the question, is that what happens with world history, too?

An uneven narrative

Admittedly, reading this book was an uneven experience for me. The first two parts were some of the most compelling — and moving — literary fiction I’ve ever read. Who could not be intrigued by the idea of a baby dying in her cradle, aged just eight months, and then seeing the outfall on her parents — a Gentile father, who flees to America to escape the pain of his loss, and a Jewish mother, who falls apart emotionally and accidentally falls into prostitution to support herself?

The second part, which explores what would happen if the baby had  survived (because the parents had rubbed a handful of snow on her chest to bring her back from the brink of death), follows the now 17-year-old girl being uprooted from her home in Eastern Europe and settling in Vienna, where it is hoped she will lead a better life. But it’s 1919 and food, fuel wood — and hope — is in short supply. There is increasing, yet unspoken, pressure on her to sell herself in order to sustain her family, but instead she enters into a suicide pact with a fellow student.

The third part charts a new variation of the young woman’s life had that pact failed, but this is where my interest in the novel began to wane. I’m not sure if that’s because I’d got used to the “trick” of the story, or whether it was because the prose style suddenly became dry and detached, a mirror perhaps of the period of Communist history in which it was set.

I won’t elaborate on the final two parts of the story, but I found the narrative recaptured my attention once again, and I was left feeling slightly shattered by the time I’d reached the final page.

Power, passion and philosophy

The End of Days is a relatively short novel, but it’s a powerful, passionate and philosophical one. The prose is rich and evocative, and the story so filled with ideas, concepts and political, socio-economic and cultural themes that it would take an age to unpack them all. But, in my opinion, the narrative power, so strong in the first 115 pages, isn’t sustained, weakening the overall effect.

Not that my opinion really matters: this book was described as a “work of genius” when it won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction prize earlier this year.

For other takes on this novel, please do read the review on Lizzy’s Literary Life and the one on JacquiWine’s Journal

Austria, Author, Book review, Fiction, Jill Alexander Essbaum, literary fiction, Mantle Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Hausfrau’ by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau

Fiction – hardcover; Mantle; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel, Hausfrau, seems to be everywhere at the moment. I don’t normally succumb to hype, but there was so much “buzz” about this book I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I now wish I hadn’t bothered. This is a horrid, grubby story written in a plodding, pedestrian style. I truly don’t understand the appeal.

A bored housewife

The book focuses on Anna, the hausfrau (housewife) of the title, who is an expat American married to a Swiss banker. The couple lives in a suburb of Zurich and have three children: two young sons and a baby girl.

Outwardly, they look like the ideal family, but Anna is desperately unhappy, suffers from insomnia and rarely feels at ease in her own skin. She has lived in Austria for nine years but has never bothered to learn the language so hasn’t made any real friends. She’s also struggling with the idea of motherhood.

Anna hadn’t longed to be a mother. She didn’t yearn for it the way other women do. It terrified her. I’m to be responsible for another person? A tiny, helpless, needy person?

She’s not even sure she’s married the right man, because her relationship with Bruno is one-sided: they rarely speak (he hides away in his office when he’s at home) and together they don’t do much socially. Anna can’t drive and doesn’t have a bank account of her own, so her independence is limited. Yet Anna’s passivity has merit:

It was useful. It made for relative peace in the house on Rosenweg. Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She simply followed.

When she finally decides to go back to school to learn German, she sets off a chain of events that have long-lasting repercussions. Here, she meets Archie, an expat Scotsman, with whom she has a rather sordid affair. But as the story unfolds, we learn that this is not the first time Anna has been adulterous. Extramarital sex, it seems, is one way of making her feel alive.

Pedestrian prose

I think my problem with this book was not so much the content — yes, there’s quite a bit of sex in it, but it’s written so coldly that it’s not exactly titillating — but the way in which the narrative plods along in pedestrian-like prose. I’ve read reviews describing the writing as “haunting”, “elegant” and “exquisite”, others say it’s written in a “cool European tone” but I think we must have been reading different novels. Essbaum is a poet, but her novel-writing style is far from lyrical: for most of the time it’s perfunctory, mechanical and wooden. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example:

Two weeks later, on a Sunday, the last day of the month, Anna, Bruno, Ursula, and the children boarded a 10.00 a.m. train. They were on their way to Mumpf, a town in Kanton Aargau near Switzerland’s north border, where Daniela, Bruno’s sister, and her partner David lived. It was Daniela’s fortieth birthday. Taking a train often made more sense than driving. Today the choice was made by circumstance: with Ursula joining them they couldn’t all fit inside the car. The only inconvenience of the plan was two changes. David would meet them at Bahnhof Mumpf when they arrived.

On top of this, the author treats her readers as if they can’t think for themselves by spelling out every single thing, including all the metaphors:

‘There are two basic groups of German verbs,’ Roland said, ‘strong and weak. Weak verbs are regular verbs that follow typical rules. Strong verbs are irregular. They don’t follow patterns. You deal with strong verbs on their own terms.’ Like people, Anna thought. The strong ones stand out. The weak ones are all the same.

Even the bits of the story that focus on Anna’s sessions with a therapist are nothing more than too-obvious vehicles for getting certain messages across to the reader. Indeed, they’re about as subtle as a garbage truck roaring down a quiet residential street at 5 in the morning.

‘A lonely woman is a dangerous woman.’ Doktor Messerli spoke with grave sincerity. ‘A lonely woman is a bored woman. Bored women act on impulse.’

Aaaaargghhh! Can you hear me screaming from here?

There’s a couple of shocking revelations midway through the story that do add a frisson of excitement — let’s face it, the sex scenes don’t achieve that — but I find it hard to say anything particularly positive about Hausfrau. It just didn’t appeal on any level. Perhaps the best thing was the ending — and I’m not just talking about the final two sentences, which pack a real punch of the oh-my-I-didn’t-see-that-coming variety, it was the fact I could put the book down knowing I’d never have to pick it up again!

Clearly there’s an audience for these kinds of novels judging by all the five-star reviews on Amazon and all the buzz about it on Twitter, but I’m not it. If I wanted to read a book about a depressed (and repressed) married woman I’d simply reread Madame Bovary

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hanna Krall, holocaust, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall

Chasing-the-king-of-hearts

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 176 pages; 2013. Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm.

Last Christmas I treated myself to all the Peirene Press titles that I did not currently own. My plan was to work my way through them over the course of this year. Alas, with so many books — and other obligations — vying for my attention, it was only last week that I managed to pull one from the pile: Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts.

This book is not your usual Peirene fare in the sense that it’s a little too long to be classed as a novella (it certainly took me far longer than two hours to read it), but I’m not sure that really matters. The book is a tribute to one woman’s amazing ability to survive everything that World War Two throws at her, including the execution of various family members, life in the Warsaw Ghetto, several stints in jail, torture by a cruel Gestapo officer (was there any other kind?)  and  internment in Auschwitz. And that’s only the half of it.

A woman’s love for her husband

The story is framed around a love affair between a woman, Izolda Regensberg, and her husband, Shayek, the “King of Hearts” of the title, who is taken away by force to a concentration camp. Over the next few years, Izolda does everything in her power to be reunited with him — indeed, she becomes the “Queen of Chameleons”: she changes her name, her hair, her occupation and her religion. She finds new ways to make money — selling goods on the blackmarket and acting as a secret message courier — in order to fund her journey to find her beloved.

Her life is constantly in danger as she passes herself off as a blonde-haired Catholic — and for much of the time she gets away with it. But every now and then she doesn’t:

When the train stops at Radom the German takes her to the police station.
Evidently you look like a Jew, says the policeman.
She’s genuinely surprised: I look like a Jew? I’ve never heard that before.
Can you say your Hail Mary? the policeman asks.
Of course. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with the… […] Blessed art thou among women… Because she is addressing the Mother of God, who is full of grace, she goes slowly, making every word count, to show respect.
Listen to you, the policeman laughs out loud. What normal person says Hail Mary like that? Usually it’s hailmaryfullofgracethelordiswiththee… You really are a Jew!

But despite this little “hiccup” she remains steely, determined and astonishingly resilient. Nothing ever seems to faze her: not even broken shoulders and a knocked out tooth. She simply dusts herself off and continues her quest.

And it is a quest in the truest sense of the word, for Izolda comes across so many challenges and obstacles and tests of courage, yet she never gives in. Not even the horrors of Auschwitz can dent her perseverance or enthusiasm. Indeed, she’s so self-assured she approaches Dr Mengele for a job!

Fast-paced adventure story

As you might imagine for a book that covers so much geographical territory —Vienna, Warsaw and countless other towns — the narrative has a rather fast pace. Sometimes events move so quickly it’s hard to keep up —  it’s a catalogue of train journeys, some taken on purpose, others by force  — and reads like a woman’s own adventure story.

The prose style is neat and clipped. It’s written in the third person but in the present tense, which lends the story a sense of immediacy, and it brims with tension throughout. It’s not sensational in the Hollywood sense, but it is a magnificent story told with exceptional restraint. Despite being set during the Holocaust, there’s not a shred of sentimentality or pity in it.

And yet it’s never quite clear whether Izolda’s love is truly reciprocated, and her inner life, along with Shayek himself, is frustratingly unknowable because she’s so stoic and self-contained. But on the whole Chasing the King of Hearts is the kind of story that makes you marvel at humankind’s ability to adapt and survive in the face of so much adversity. It’s also the kind of story that I know will remain with me for a long time to come…

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Farrar, Fiction, literary fiction, Peter Handke, Publisher, Setting, Straus and Giroux

‘The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick’ by Peter Handke

The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Fiction – paperback; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 133 pages; 2007. Translated from the German by Michael Roloff.

Austrian writer Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick was first published in 1970. According to the blurb on the back of my 2007 reprint, it caused quite a stir in Europe and the United States at the time, because of its “innovative use of language and its searing portrait of a troubled man in an equally troubled society”.

It came to my attention after I read a rather wonderful interview with MJ Hyland in which she named it as one of her influences. I love Hyland’s work (you can read all my reviews of her novels here) and this book sounded like something I’d like, so I promptly ordered a copy online. Fittingly, it arrived just in time for German Literature Month, which runs throughout November, and was an “interesting” palette cleanser after reading a steady stream of Canadian fiction for my Shadow Giller obligations.

An accidental murder

The story is a simple one (though it’s astonishingly told): Joseph Bloch is a once-famous soccer goalkeeper (the “goalie” of the title), who has just lost his job on a construction site. With nothing to occupy his days and no friends of whom to speak, he fills in time by going to the cinema, where he develops a “thing” for the cashier, whom he later murders, almost by accident and without thinking of the consequences.

He flees to a village on the Austrian border, where he re-establishes contact with an old girlfriend, who runs a public house. By coincidence the neighbourhood is filled with police, all on the hunt for a missing boy.  Bloch’s days are mostly filled wandering around aimlessly, observing the search efforts from afar; his evenings drinking in the pub. Nothing much happens.

But it’s not so much the actual things that Joseph does, but what goes on in his head that makes this novella such an intriguing read. Surprisingly, given it’s written in the third person, we get an alarming view of Bloch’s mental state and his subsequent decent into a kind of madness.

In many ways it’s like Bloch is watching a movie with the sound turned down too low. He has problems with his memory — he often gets a feeling of deja vu, as if it takes his mind a few seconds to catch up with his actions  — and constantly mishears things or is woken up by noises that don’t actually exist.

Bloch was wakened by a banging and wheezing on the street, trash cans being dumped into the garbage truck; but when he looked out, he saw that the folding door of the bus that was just leaving had closed and, farther away, that milk cans were being set on the loading ramp of the dairy. There weren’t any garbage trucks out here in the country; the muddle was starting all over again.

The prose style is detached, so detached it’s almost weightless, which lends the tale quite a chilling atmosphere, effectively echoing Bloch’s troubled mindset.

Indeed, Handke does rather wonderful things with language in this book, which demonstrates how muddled and confused Bloch becomes as the story progresses. This paragraph is a good example:

The policemen, who made the usual remarks, nevertheless seemed to mean something entirely different by them; at least they purposely mispronounced phrases like “got to remember” and “take off” as “goats you remember” and “take-off” and, just as purposely, let their tongues slide over others, saying “whitewash?” instead of “why watch?” and “closed, or” instead of “close door”. For what would be the point of their telling him about the goats that, he should remember, had once, when the door had been left open, forced their way into the pool, which hadn’t even been officially open yet, and had soiled everything, even the walls of the restaurant, so that the rooms had to be whitewashed all over again and it wasn’t ready on time, which was why Bloch should keep the door closed and stay on the sidewalk?

Admittedly The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is a difficult read, not least because it presents a man battling his own sanity, but because it’s written in such a dry, almost monotonous, manner it’s sometimes hard to maintain interest. That monotony is no doubt deliberate because it simply mirrors the dullness of Bloch’s life (one can’t help but wonder if he didn’t murder the cashier simply to alleviate the boredom), so it’s something of a relief that the book is only 133 pages long.

It’s not a cheery read by any stretch of the imagination — and it ends far too abruptly for my liking — but the way in which it reveals the hidden mind is nothing less than impressive. And I would certainly explore more of Handke’s back catalogue: he has dozens of novels (and plays) in translation.

Austria, Author, Book review, Edmund De Waal, France, History, Japan, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance’ by Edmund De Waal

Hare-with-amber-eyes

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 368 pages; 2011.

Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes won the 2010 Costa Biography Award. And yet this book is not a biography as such. It’s a mix of memoir and history, with a little bit of art and some travel thrown in for good measure.

The hare of the title is carved out of ivory and is one of 264 netsuke that Edmund De Waal inherited from his Uncle Iggie. Netsuke are miniature sculptures from Japan, highly collectible and presumably worth a lot of money. De Waal, who is a potter by trade, is obviously enamoured of them and is keen to learn how these intriguing items came to pass. He also wants to know how they entered his family: where did his Uncle Iggie get them from?

While the book appears to centre on this special collection of netsuke — their origin, the ways in which they have been passed through three generations of De Waal’s family — their appearance in the text is fleeting. This is more a story about De Waal’s complicated, but intriguing, family tree — he is the direct descendant of the Ephrussi family, a Jewish banking and oil dynasty that originated in Odessa, Ukraine, rose to power in Paris and Vienna, but then crumbled when the Nazis seized their assets, including the family’s famous bank, during the Second World War.

De Waal chooses to structure his book by starting near the top of his family tree, rather than working backwards as one might expect (or perhaps I’ve just watched way too many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?) This is a gamble, because what happens if this person is the most interesting relative of the lot? Everyone else will pale by comparison and the narrative tension will be lost.

Arguably, Charles Ephrussi, whom De Waal introduces us to in Part One, is the most interesting relative he has in his tree. Paris-based Charles (1849-1905) is an art historian, critic and collector, who is immersed in the Impressionist era. He buys work from the likes of Manet, Pisarro and Degas and is depicted in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. If that’s not enough, he is also the inspiration for Charles Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He even starts his own periodical and becomes editor several years later.

It is Charles who buys the netsuke from Japan at a time when Japanese art was coming into fashion. And it is Charles who passes them onto a Vienna-based cousin, as a wedding present, setting them on a journey that is to stretch for more than 100 years.

I have to admit that there were times when I found this book slightly tedious — and dull. De Waal has a tendency to be self-indulgent, to explore the things that interest him rather than thinking about his reader, but his prose style is elegant and effortless.

Every now and then, however, there are little bursts of excitement — and shock — that lift the text out of the doldrums and give the narrative some extra impetus. I was particularly rivetted by the section in which the Nazis seized the Ephrussi family’s palace, depriving them of their property and belongings. For a family so wealthy and privileged it must have seemed an astonishingly rude — and frightening — shock from which they never fully recovered.

But, overall, I had reservations about this book, perhaps because I’m not much of a “thing” person — material objects and accumulation of wealth don’t interest me in the slightest. The Hare with the Amber Eyes resonated more with me as a history of anti-semitism in the 20th century rather than a “biography” of netsuke. It’s an interesting book, but it’s also a strange one, too.

Austria, Author, Book review, Granta, John Leake, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, USA

‘The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life’ by John Leake

ViennaWoods

Non-fiction – hardcover; Granta Books; 347 pages; 2007.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and no more so than in the case of Jack Unterweger, a convicted murderer hailed as Austria’s greatest example of criminal rehabilitation. While serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of 18-year-old Margaret Schäfer in 1976, Jack developed a flair for writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction. His work was so well received he became the darling of the literary elite who campaigned, successfully, for his early release in 1990.

But despite his apparent reform, everything was not quite as it seemed. When four prostitutes disappeared from Vienna’s red light district in the first year of Jack’s release he was one of the first to write about the crimes. He ingratiated himself with the local police chief and interviewed many of the city’s street workers for articles that were published in the press.

Capitalising on new found celebrity, Jack then went to California to research a magazine article about crime in LA. He accompanied  police on their patrols of the city’s red light districts. During the time of his visit three prostitutes were brutally murdered. Their deaths, in which they had been beaten, tied up and strangled, bore striking resemblances to the deaths of the Viennese prostitutes.

This book by American journalist John Leake traces Jack’s life and the painstaking lengths that police on two continents undertook to charge him with the murder of 11 women. It is an absolutely fascinating story about one man’s ability to hoodwink society into thinking he had put his criminal past behind him while living a secret life as a serial killer. What emerges is a portrait of a sociopath who was so careful and clever at carrying out these despicable crimes that it took police many years of hard work to catch him.

The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life is creepy and spine-chilling in places, with so many twists and turns in the narrative that it seems almost too unreal, too fantastical to be true, but Leake never resorts to sensationalism or cheap literary tricks. The tone of this thoroughly researched book (Leake had privileged access to Jack’s diaries and interviewed all the major players) is restrained but never dull. It’s a well plotted, cleverly crafted investigative piece of non-fiction that had me enthralled from the first page to the satisfying — and wholly unexpected — conclusion on the last.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harry Mulisch, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Siegfried’ by Harry Mulisch

Siefried 

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 180 pages; 2004. Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent.

An elderly and celebrated Dutch author, Rudolph Herter, goes on a literary tour to Austria, taking his partner, Maria, with him. During a television interview promoting his latest novel, The Invention of Love, he offhandedly mentions that despite all the books and studies about Hitler humankind is no closer to understanding the Fuhrer and why he did what he did. “All those so-called explanations have simply made him more invisible,” says Herter. “Perhaps fiction is the net that he can be caught in.”

Later at a book signing, an elderly couple who survived the war, approach Herter with a story of their own to tell. Herter agrees to hear their tale, thinking that he may be able to use it as the basis for his next novel, which he has already decided should be about Hitler.

Over the course of an afternoon in their room at an old people’s home, the couple, Ullrich and Julia Falk, break the oath they once swore to Hitler and share their terrible secret with a gob-smacked Herter. Their story is so utterly astonishing that Herter soon realises that even the best fiction writers can never properly compete with the truth…

Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, if I say any more about the story it will spoil the plot. But let’s just say that it didn’t turn out to be the dramatic, page-turning tale I had expected.

Sure, Siegfried is a strange and beguiling novel, which deals with a lot of big themes. At its most basic level it pits fiction against fact and plays with the idea that truth is stranger than fiction. But it also attempts to explain the role of literature in helping us to comprehend the evils of the world around us. As a consequence the story gets bogged down in philosophy and navel gazing. Which is a shame, because there is a great story here dying to get out.

For me, personally, I would have loved this book to be more traditionally structured: to have a straightforward narrative that tells the Falk’s shocking tale from their viewpoint. (In fact, I would have taken Herter out of the story altogether. And yes, I realise this would mean the book would be totally different to the book that Harry Mulisch has created here. I rest my case.)

Instead, what we get is three not-very-seamless stories in one: Herter’s, the Falks’ and Eva Braun’s.

The pacing is not straightforward either, with the climax happening about half-way through, leaving the story that follows slightly weaker for it.

Still, if you like big, weighty themes, don’t mind the author philosophising and are fascinated by the love affair between Hitler and Eva Braun you might just find this novel more riveting than I did.