Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Ricarda Huch, Russia, Setting

‘The Last Summer’ by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

First published in 1910, this German-language novella is a delightfully different — and completely compelling — twist on a psychological thriller.

The Last Summer was written by Ricarda Huch, a German intellectual who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature seven times. It was translated into English by small press Peirene for the first time more than a century later.

Set in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, it tells the story of Yegor von Rasimkara, the governor of St Petersburg, who closes the state university to quell student unrest. Beset by threats (real and imagined), he retreats to his summer residence, taking his wife Lusinya and their three adult children — Katya, Velya and Jessika — with him.

To protect them from would-be assassins and intruders, Lusinya hires a secretary-cum-bodyguard, Lyu, for her husband, unaware that Lyu, a clever and handsome young man, sides with the student revolutionaries and has a devious plan of his own.

An epistolary novella

Composed entirely of letters between a handful of characters, the novella charts the impact of Lyu on the close-knit family and their existing household.

He charms them all into believing he has the family’s best interests at heart, while he scribbles letters to an unseen Konstantin updating him on the situation and outlining his proposed method of attack.

I do not doubt that my plan will succeed: indeed, the circumstances appear even more favorable than might have been expected. The whole family seems well disposed towards me and I detect no hint of any suspicion, which is entirely natural, as only we in the know could fear the contrary. If the governor has made inquiries into my person, this cannot have done any harm, as all the way from elementary school to university my reports have been outstanding.

Jessika, the youngest daughter, is so charmed she falls in love with him. It’s really only the eldest daughter Katya who doubts Lyu’s loyalty and eventually, in a fit of pique, leaves the family home to avoid him.

As letters fly backward and forward between various family members — Jessika to her aunt Tatyana; Velya to Peter, a childhood friend who is expected to marry Katya; Lusinya to her sister-in-law; and Lyu to Konstantin — we see how events are unfolding, how suspicions are beginning to arise and how such doubts are also being dispelled.

One-sided correspondence

The correspondence is largely one-sided so we never hear directly from all the recipients. Tatyana, for instance, remains silent throughout, and we only hear from Yegor in a single short letter to his two eldest children (who have been sent away to Paris to continue their education) right at the very end.

This gives the reader room to interpret events and misunderstandings, to see how conversations are deliberately skewed or taken the wrong way, and allows one to put together the clues and to see the bigger picture that eludes all the main players in the story.

Admittedly, it takes some time to warm to the epistolary style, which feels disjointed and confusing to begin with, but once you understand who is who and work out their role in the narrative, it all comes together beautifully — and the final letter punches a particularly devastating blow.

I loved this wonderful multi-layered novella which explores family loyalty, betrayal, trust and ideology but does so in a completely understated way. It’s an unexpected treat that demands more than one reading.


I read this for Lizzie’s #GermanLitMonth. The book is also short enough to qualify for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. This is called killing two birds with one stone, or reading one book for two reading challenges!

 

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.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Alan Carter, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kristina Olsson, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

3 Recommended Reads: Alan Carter, Kristina Olsson and Bernhard Schlink

The season has changed and  #20BooksOfSummer is long over, but I am a little behind in my reviewing. That’s why I’ve decided to produce this small wrap-up of the last three books I read as part of that challenge.

The three books featured here are all very different from each other, probably a good representation of my diverse taste, but they do have one thing in common: they are all set in Australia.

The trio includes a page-turning police procedural, a lush literary novel set in the 1960s and a German novel about art and dying. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Heaven Sent’ by Alan Carter

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 322 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Walking the streets of Fremantle, my newly adopted city, isn’t quite going to be the same having now read Alan Carter’s crime novel Heaven Sent. That’s because this gripping hard-to-guess crime tale is about a series of gruesome murders in various locations — all familiar to me — across Fremantle.

All the murders are of homeless people and the killer leaves a calling card, almost as if he is taunting the police by leaving “clues” no one quite understands. To complicate matters further, a local journalist dabbles in the investigation by communicating online with the killer as he plays a dangerous game that puts Detective Senior Sergeant Cato Kwong’s career, family and life on the line.

This is actually the fourth book in the Cato Kwong series, which began in 2010 with Carter’s debut novel, Prime Cut. I hadn’t read the previous two novels but it didn’t seem to matter, for this is a superb, intelligent crime novel, one that marries an authentic, atmospheric setting (Fremantle is renowned for its ghosts and, sadly, it’s homeless population) with a dedicated detective trying to balance his work and home life while carrying out a high-profile investigation. It’s got great pacing, is rich in detail and brims with human emotion — and humour.

‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 374 pages; 2018. 

The controversy surrounding the construction and design of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s forms the backdrop to Kristina Olsson’s lush literary novel Shell. Protests against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War are also raging, giving the story a rich sense of time and place.

There are two main characters: Pearl Keogh, a newspaper reporter whose involvement in the anti-war movement has led to her being banished to the women’s pages; and Axel Lindquist, a Swedish sculptor who has been commissioned to create a unique piece of work for the Opera House. The pair meet and fall in love, but this is not a typical love story.

Both have significant people missing in their lives and both are on quests to find salvation to personal problems; their romance is almost subsidiary to their individual obsessions. As a result, there is nothing ordinary about their partnership, just as there is nothing ordinary about this gently nuanced novel.

Full of exquisite imagery and the inner-most thoughts of the intelligent people at its heart, Shell unfolds slowly, but rewards the patient reader with a moving story about art, architecture and family, as well as the importance of staying true to yourself and your beliefs. I loved the way it made me slow down and pause for breath, to think about things more deeply and to experience the story’s very many layers of meaning.

‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink

Fiction – paperback; W&N; 225 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt.

I love novels about art and artists, so Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs ticked all the right boxes for me.

But it is a book of two halves. The first reads like a psychological thriller involving the mysterious reappearance in Sydney, Australia, of a European painting (the woman on the stairs of the title) that has been considered missing for decades. The second is a more nuanced, gentler affair about caring for a terminally ill patient in unusual circumstances. How these halves come together is what makes this novel — which is essentially about three men fighting over the one woman — an unusual but compelling one.

The first person narrative, written in a dry, detached manner from the point of view of a lawyer who falls in love with the woman in the painting, gives the novel a confessional feel. I loved its themes of emotional restraint, regret, impulse and obsessions, while its short chapters and fast pace meant I raced through this in just a couple of sittings. This is a good one to read if you are looking for something a little different.

These books represent my 15th, 16th & 17th books for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. The Kristina Olsson book is my 17th book for #AWW2020

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.