20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Eric Lomax, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Railway Man’ by Eric Lomax

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 322 pages; 2014.

We all know famous first lines from books, but how many can quote the last line? It was the ending of this book — and specifically the final sentence — that really got me. It packed such a powerful punch and rounded off all that had gone before with such aplomb and grace and wisdom that it made me cry.

Scottish-born Eric Lomax, the author of this extraordinary autobiography, The Railway Man, was a young officer with the Royal Corps of Signals when he was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army during the fall of Singapore in February 1942.

He was just one of thousands of POWs forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway under brutal, inhumane conditions.

The book charts Lomax’s life from his quiet childhood in Edinburgh to his time in the British Army during the Second World War. It looks at what happened to him when the war ended and finishes with him meeting  the Japanese soldier who tortured him 50 years earlier.

The title comes from Lomax’s love of trains and all things train related, an obsession he discovered as a young boy.

I was drawn to the railways so much that they have been a backdrop to almost every turning-point in my life, and have led me into unhappiness and torment, as well as some of the only real contentment I have ever known.

Many of you may know the story already from the 2013 film adaptation starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. I haven’t seen the film, so am not sure how faithful it is to Lomax’s book (Lomax died in 2012, so never got to see the film).

Admittedly it’s written in a fairly dry, reserved style and follows the tropes of traditional autobiography. The prose is clear, succinct and free of sentiment.

The main section, which is about life as a POW, includes descriptions of horrific acts by Japanese soldiers against the prisoners, Lomax included, but they are not gratuitous: they are central to the story. (Lomax had both his arms broken in a terrible beating; in another instance he was water-boarded. He was so desperate to escape his torturers, he threw himself down the stairs so that he could be taken to the hospital in Changi, where conditions weren’t much better but at least he’d “enjoy” a slight reprieve.)

The Railway Man really comes into its own after the war is over, when Lomax returns home to try to pick up his life where he left off, only to discover that he’s not the person he thought he was.

I was often inward-looking, a victim of a strange passivity that made me absorb experiences like blotting paper but which made it difficult for me to give; it made me appear slow, yet I was anything but lazy. I felt sometimes like a guest in my own house. When confrontation came, I would resist with immense stubborn energy, revenging myself on the Kempeitai [the military police of the Japanese Imperial Army] and the guards in every encounter. Although I could not have admitted it, I was still fighting the war in all those years of peace.

When he accidentally discovers his torturer is still alive, he dreams of revenge. But when the opportunity to meet him face to face arises, Lomax realises that he has the capacity to forgive — and it is this extraordinary meeting, between two men, both in their 80s, that gives this book its remarkable redemptive power. It’s an astonishing read.

Fans of Richard Flanagan’s Booker-award-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North will find much to like here.

In 1996, The Railway Man won both the NCR Book Award for Non-Fiction and the PEN/Ackerley Prize for autobiography.

This is my 1st book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 20th book for #TBR40. I bought this copy a couple of years ago from Harbour Books, a lovely independent bookshop in Whitstable, on the Kent coast, which had a lot of old Vintage stock going cheaply. The price tag on the front of this edition shows I paid £2.99 for it instead of the £5.99RRP. 

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Bausch, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press, war

‘Peace’ by Richard Bausch

Peace

Fiction – hardcover; Tuskar Rock; 171 pages; 2009.

There’s a lot to be said for short, succinct books, especially if they deliver punches that feel more powerful — and more targeted — than might be achieved by novels of much longer length. It takes a particular skill to craft stories that have been honed to the bare minimum without losing the essence of what makes them special.

Richard Bausch, an American writer, has that rare talent to convey meaning and emotion in a tightly written narrative in which every word has to justify its existence. No surprise, then, that he’s largely known as a short story writer.

Peace, first published in 2009 — in the then new Atlantic imprint Tuskar Rock started by Colm Toibin — proves that in the right hands a story doesn’t have to be 500 pages long to have an impact. I came away from this one reeling not only with the drama of it, but also the beauty of Bausch’s lyrical, stripped-back prose hugely reminiscent at times of all those Irish writers I’ve come to know and love. On more than one occasion I was reminded of John McGahern — which is high praise indeed.

Dying days of war

The story is set in Italy at the tail end of the Second World War. A group of American soldiers on foot patrol are trying to locate the enemy, which is on the retreat.

The weather is atrocious, the soldiers are exhausted (some are ill with dysentery) and morale is low. When their sergeant commits a war crime — he deliberately shoots an unarmed woman because “she would have shot us all if she could” — those who witness it are too foot-sore and weary to report it. But this one act hangs over all who saw it, haunting their days and their nights.

Three of those witnesses — Marson, Asch and Joyner — are sent on a reconnaissance mission, up a steep mountain with an old Italian man as a guide. What ensues is a difficult journey that is fraught with danger, not only from treacherous terrain and freezing rain and snow, but German snipers hidden in the woods.

Stress and fear

Under these stressful and challenging conditions the soldiers’ fears are heightened and yet they cannot forget what they saw the day before, discussing it over and over amongst themselves — was the act justified? should they forget it or report it? are they complicit in the crime? — which only serves to deepen the ructions and tensions between them.

This is a useful device for Bausch to examine each man’s character, to fill in their back stories and to explore their own individual morals and beliefs. What emerges is a carefully drawn portrait of a trio of soldiers, fighting on the same side, but all with different prejudices, opinions, fears and foibles.

“You guys are Christians,” Asch said. “You believe in an angry God who’s interested in payback. Right? ‘Vengeance is mine’ — all that. Well, we’re gonna pay for yesterday. I think we might be paying for it now.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Joyner said. “Let go of it, will you? It’s our religion so we’re the ones who’ll go to hell, not you.”
“I’m not even going to answer that,” Asch said. “Jesus, Joyner. The way your mind works.”
“It’s stupid to argue about it here,” Marson said.

Creeping sense of unease

As the narrative progresses, the reader begins to share the soldiers’ growing sense of unease and paranoia: will they be ambushed by the enemy? Is the Italian man as innocent as he purports to be? Is their mission a complete waste of time?

Peace explores all kinds of issues assorted with war, not least the fine line between courage and fear, and the temptation to behave in ways that would be out of keeping under normal, peace-time circumstances. It highlights the immense task that young, largely immature, men had to endure: Asch and Joyner are barely out of their teens, and Marson, who is their corporal, is only in his mid-20s and yet here they are confronting death — the likelihood of theirs, the prospect of killing others — on a daily basis. Bausch never makes them heroic, but instead shows their innermost struggles to make sense of a world gone mad. There is fear, foreboding and anger on almost every page, but there is also tenderness and heartbreak as each man determines what it is to be good in the face of so much horror.

Despite being less than 180 pages, this is an emotionally intelligent book dealing with weighty themes. It brims with tension and moral complexity but is dotted with lovely moments of quiet reflection that make it an astonishing, curiously gripping and heartfelt read.

Author, Book review, Dav Vyleta, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Crooked Maid’ by Dan Vyleta

Crooked-maid

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 427 pages; 2013.

Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid has been short-listed for this year’s Giller Prize. It is one of those novels that has the feel of a timeless classic; it reads as though it could have been written at any point in the past 60 years.

Ambitious in scope, it recreates Vienna in 1948, peoples it with a sizable collection of well-drawn characters, connects them all in a myriad of brilliant and unexpected ways, then throws in a murder mystery, a missing person case, a courtroom trial, several love affairs and a scandal or two. I loved its breadth and its scope, and found myself swept up by a dark drama that covers everything from love and loyalty to betrayal and corruption.

A vast cast of characters

The book opens with a train journey. Anna Beer is returning to war-torn Vienna from Paris for the first time in nine years. She’s hoping to rendezvous with her estranged husband, a psychiatrist, who has spent most of the war as an inmate in a Russian concentration camp. The couple’s marriage crumbled after Anna caught her husband with another man, but she is now prepared to forgive him, so that they can start their lives afresh.

Travelling in the same carriage is Robert Seidel, an 18-year-old boy, who has just finished his schooling in Switzerland. He has been summoned home to Vienna, where his step-father, a wealthy industrialist (rumoured to have collaborated with the Nazis), now lies in a hospital bed on the brink of death. He supposedly “fell” out of an upper storey window, but Robert’s older step-brother, Wolfgang, has been charged with his murder.

It is around these two characters — Anna and Robert — that the story largely revolves, but there are many other characters who enter the frey and add to the multi-layered, interwoven narrative that Vyleta has so expertly crafted.

The “evil” hunchback

Chief among these is Eva, the “crooked maid” of the title, who works for the Seidel family and has a distinctive hunchback resulting from an injury caused to her as a child. She was raised in an orphanage and has spent most of her life looking after herself. As a consequence she is rather feisty and outspoken. She also likes to play up to her wicked reputation — “You’re evil,” Robert tells her at one point. “I’m a hunchback. What did you expect?” she retorts.

And then there is Karel Neumann, a large Czech man, who claims to have been a POW with Anna’s husband, Anton Beer. Anton, however, can’t vouch for him, because he never returns to Vienna — instead Anna must go to the police to report him missing.

There are more characters, all bumping and rubbing up against one another, but to the author’s credit, the reader never loses track of who is who despite the seemingly never-ending cast. Oh, and how could I forget — the city of Vienna — grey, oppressive, war-torn — is a character, too:

The northern part of the inner city had not been subject to direct attack and had only been hit by strays. Most of the rubble had been cleared. There were buildings, upper storeys, that were missing. Her eyes stared up at gaps into which her mind would paint a row of windows; a stuccoed gable perched atop a brass-shod door. Here and there torn walls had been patched: dull, artless plaster clinging like a canker to ornate facades. Men and women walked the streets, hungry, threadbare, dressed in shabby clothes; blind to the pockmarked beauty of a capital whose empire had been mislaid.

Complicated plot

While I couldn’t possibly outline the rather complicated plot in just a paragraph or two, let’s just say it embraces everything from patricide to suicide, vagrancy to prostitution, and piles incident upon incident so that there’s never a dull moment and you’re never sure what’s going to happen next.

In his Afterword, Vyleta says the book’s structure — and its reliance on coincidence — owes much to Charles Dickens, particularly “of his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance”. Which is pretty much the perfect description of what The Crooked Maid achieves so beautifully. I rather suspect the entire narrative was expertly planned in advance — much like a grand chess master plots his moves — because for such an ambitious, wide-ranging story, Vyleta ties up all the loose ends in a pleasing, satisfying way. Nothing feels forced or rushed.

And while it’s not an easy read — it’s too dense, too claustrophobic, too dry and oppressive for that — it’s an absorbing one, because it throws you into a completely all-encompassing world and lets you walk its streets, climb its staircases, breath its air and forget about your own life for a bit. It’s an impressive achievement.

Author, Book review, Esi Edugyan, Fiction, France, Germany, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood-Blues

Fiction – Kindle edition; Serpent’s Tail; 256 pages; 2011.

A book about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War isn’t something that would normally pique my interest. But this book has been nominated for every award going this year — the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — so I figured there must be something special about it. I was right.

The first thing that strikes you about this novel is the voice of its narrator, Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s. To give you a feel for how he talks, here’s how he describes the jazz band to which he once belonged:

Once upon a time we was the stuff. Played the greatest clubs of Europe, our five recordings as famous as anything. We had fans across the continent, played Austria and Switzerland and Sweden and Hungary and even Poland. Only reason we ain’t never gigged in France was cause Ernst, a proud son of a bitch, he held a war-based grudge. Lost it soon enough, when old Germany started falling apart. But before that our band was downright gold, all six of us: Hieronymus Falk on trumpet; Ernst ‘the Mouth’ von Haselberg on clarinet; Big Fritz Bayer on alto sax; Paul Butterstein on piano; and, finally, us, the rhythm boys – Chip Jones on drums and yours truly thumbing the upright. We was a kind of family, as messed-up and dysfunctional as any you could want.

When the story opens Sid is an old man. It’s 1992 and his fellow band member, Chip, is accompanying him to the German premiere of a film about Hieronymus Falk. Hiero, the youngest member of their band, was largely regarded as a musical protégé, but he died in Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The documentary explores events leading up to his arrest by the Nazis. It also accuses Sid of a great betrayal, something which takes him somewhat by surprise.

But all is not as it seems. Like the legend of Elvis, there are rumours that Hiero is still alive.

‘What really happened to Hieronymus Falk’ become something of a journalist sport. All sorts of nonsense started up.

When Chip reveals that he’s received recent correspondence from Hiero, he and Sid go on a heart-wrenching adventure to find him. During their trip — by bus through a rather grim pre-European Union Poland — Sid slowly comes to accept that his past has finally caught up with him but is struggling to know how to deal with it.

The narrative swings back and forth across time — from Berlin and Paris during the war, and Berlin and Poland 50 years later — but events are always seen from Sid’s point of view. It’s a fascinating account of one man’s experiences — his love affairs, his musical rivalries and fierce jealousies (especially of Hiero), his guilt and much-too-late atonement for one cruel act that he can never take back.

These temporal shifts allow us to see the ways in which Sid has grown and changed as a character. The young Sid is plagued by self-doubt and envy; the older Sid is comfortable in his skin until his conscience and regret get the better of him.

While the book is littered with jazz references, I tended not to view this as a “jazz novel” — I’m not knowledgeable enough to cast comment on its authenticity or otherwise — but I did enjoy the way Edugyan brings the music to life through her prose.

Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and [Louis] Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping. After some minutes Chip stopped singing, left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.

But for me, the heart of this novel is the way in which Edugyan shines a spotlight on a subject not much explored in modern fiction — that of black people living in Aryan Germany. Here’s how one character explains it:

‘Life for black people under the Third Reich,’ he said through his nose, ‘was extremely contradictory. This is because there were so many different types of black people, and their treatment depended on what group they belonged to. For instance, you had the children of the African diplomats who’d come to the country during its colonial period. You had African–American performers, the opera singer Marian Anderson and jazzmen like Charles Jones and Sidney Griffiths, who, like their counterparts in Paris – Josephine Baker, Arthur Briggs, Bill Coleman and the like – all came to Europe to get away from the overwhelming racism prevalent in the southern United States in that era. The Jim Crow laws, in effect from the late 1800s right into the 1950s, barred blacks from active participation in society. In the twenties Europe was still a place black entertainers could come to earn a good living. Especially in Germany, whose borders were kept open to foreigners due to the Versailles Treaty. Also, the loss of the First World War had brought about a whole new artistic movement. The market for jazz had grown tremendously, and there was a decent following.’

While Half Blood Blues is not a perfect novel, I can’t help but respect Edugyan’s accomplishment. She’s attempted a risky endeavour by giving herself some high aims. Not only does she write the entire book in a Creolized voice, she focuses on jazz musicians against the backdrop of the Third Reich. She then fleshes out a very strong cast of characters, throws in a page-turning plot — Is Hiero alive or not? Did Sid really betray him? — and uses a complex structure to tell her story.

Half Blood Blues has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize — and I’d like to think she might just win it. For other takes on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.

Author, Book review, David Bezmozgis, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Free World’ by David Bezmozgis

The-Free-World

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 368 pages; 2011.

Imagine being stuck in a figurative “no man’s land”. You can’t return to the country you just left and you have no idea which new country will let you in. That is the dilemma experienced by the wide cast of characters in David Bezmozgis‘ debut novel, The Free World.

Set in the late 1970s, the book tells the story of a family of Russian Jews fleeing the Soviet Union. Samuil, the patriarch, isn’t convinced of the need to emigrate — “In the war you ran from the enemy. Now who are you running from?” — and he is even less convinced when his war medals are seized at the border as “property of the state”.

But to his wife, Emma, and their sons, Alec and Karl and their wives Polina and Rosa, it is a chance to start afresh in a yet-to-be-chosen destination. The choices are relatively limited: they can go to Israel, direct from Vienna — where the book opens — with no need for additional paperwork, or they can go to Rome, another transit point, and sort out documentation for the USA, Canada or Australia.

Alec isn’t sure which destination is best. He just knows he doesn’t want to go to Israel — and with good reason:

They had gathered at the office that morning to present themselves before a caseworker. The Joint would not furnish them with their stipend if they didn’t file papers for a destination. Rosa continued to agitate for Israel, even though two days before, Begin had officially rejected Sadat’s latest peace proposal. While in Beirut, the Syrians were shelling the Christians, and Israel was massing troops on its northern border. Alec, having successfully avoided the worst of Soviet military service, wasn’t aching to go from Ben Gurion Airport to boot camp. Getting killed or maimed in Lebanon, or Egypt, or wherever the bullets were flying, seemed to defeat the whole point of leaving the Soviet Union.

In the event, they go to Rome, but the decision about their onward destination is rushed. When they are forced to fill out their forms after waiting weeks for an appointment, Samuil is as grumpy as ever — “This is how you decide your family’s future, ten minutes in a stairwell?” — but even Rosa has her doubts.
 

—Just like that you’re prepared to go and say Canada? What do we know about it? Rosa continued. —What do we know about anyplace? Karl said. You watched the Olympics. You liked what you saw of Montreal. And in 1972 they also showed something of Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. —You’re talking about the hockey games? Rosa asked incredulously. —Da, da Canada; nyet, nyet Soviet, Alec said. —If you have nothing intelligent to add, Rosa said. —It’s more European than America, and more American than Europe. —What does that mean? Rosa asked. —It means, Alec said, that a person can eat and dress like a human being, watch hockey, and accomplish all this without victimizing Negroes and Latin American peasants. —Basically, Karl said. Their dollar is also strong. —It doesn’t concern you that we will have to stay for months in Italy? Rosa asked. —That’s a reason against Canada? —It’s something to take into account.

But this isn’t a story about what happens when they arrive at their destination. It is a story about what happens while they remain in limbo, their lives effectively on hold, as they wait for the bureaucratic red tape to untangle.

It is here, in Rome, that we are introduced to each character — Alec, the philanderer; Samuil, the grump with a painful family history; Polina, deeply troubled by having left her sister behind; Karl, the entrepreneur; Emma, keen to reconnect with her forgotten Jewish religion — and learn their complicated back stories. It’s almost as if under the strain of the immigration process, cast adrift in an alien environment, that each character must address the past before moving into the future.

I particularly enjoyed Samuil’s back story — in which we discover that his own father and grandfather were “trapped and murdered in their Ukrainian shtetl” — and Polina’s letters to the sister she left behind, which are equally moving and eloquent.

Bezmozgis’s strength is not on plot — there is little of that, perhaps mirroring the stasis of the family’s situation — but on character. Similarly, his detailed vignettes, some of which are deeply moving and others that draw on a rich seam of humour, are perfectly rendered.

He is also very astute at capturing that lovely sense of awe as his new immigrants move from the constricted lives of Soviet Russia to the wonders of the free world. This is summed up nicely when they go to the cinema to see a film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof:

—It’s a wonderful production, a middle-aged woman behind them offered. Believe me. This is my eighth time watching. I’d watch it another eight times. In Russia, God forbid they should ever have a Jewish character in a film. But in America they made a whole movie about us.

The Free World has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. For other takes on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.

Alison Pick, Author, Book review, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, Headline Review, holocaust, Publisher, Setting

‘Far to Go’ by Alison Pick

Far-to-go

Fiction – hardcover; Headline Review; 288 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

Alison Pick’s Far to Go has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

It is billed as a history of the Kindertransport — in which nearly 10,000 Jewish children were sent to Britain to escape Nazi Germany during the Second World War — but that’s really only part of the story. The heart of this novel revolves around a married couple, Pavel and Anneliese Bauer, who fail to agree on how to personally deal with the invasion of Czechoslovakia, their homeland, by the Nazis.

The pair are well-to-do non-practising Jews.

Pavel, a wealthy and successful industrialist, refuses to believe that he should do anything other than carry out his life as normal. He is fiercely nationalistic and does not accept that Czechoslovakia will be occupied. He will not kowtow to the Germans, nor feel ashamed of his Jewishness.

But Anneliese, his rather uptight glamorous wife, is frightened. She knows that the political situation does not bode well and takes defensive steps to ensure the family’s safety — moving to Prague, for instance, in the hope that things will blow over. And when they don’t, she is eager to escape eastern Europe altogether. It is only when Pavel continues to bury his head in the sand that she tries to convince him that he should at least think of his six-year-old son, Pepik, and get him on the Kindertransport.

Pepik’s trip to Britain is not so much the focus of the novel, but its climax. His journey does not begin until page 245, which is part four of a story divided into five parts.

What’s more, much of the tale is told through the eyes of a Gentile, who resides with the Bauer family. Her name is Marta and she is Pepik’s devoted nanny. She is quite naive — and young — and gets entangled in an illicit romantic dalliance with Ernst, one of Pavel’s business associates, that puts the Bauer family in danger.

But Marta is kind-hearted and loyal — if occasionally misguided — and very much devoted to her young charge. She is so well drawn that in many ways she is the life and soul of the novel, and it’s hard not to feel for her situation, caught between a young family she wishes to serve and an older man — a Nazi sympathiser — who offers her excitement, passion and intrigue.

This might sound like a fairly straightforward story, but Pick frames it in an usual way, breaking up each section with letters between family members — written after Pepik has gone to Britain — and chapters written by a modern Holocaust expert who has a mysterious connection to the Bauers. This connection isn’t revealed until the very end of the book, which makes for a fine conclusion, and adds an extra layer of meaning to an otherwise predictable plot.

Far to Go, which is based on Pick’s own family history, is not a typical Holocaust novel. Yes, it’s sad and yes, it’s filled with tragedy and betrayal. But this isn’t a story about what happened during the War, but what life was like before the Nazis banished — and exterminated — the Jews and the legacy that survivors were confronted with after their families had been destroyed.

I wouldn’t describe the book as anything particularly special — and I’m loathe to understand its inclusion on this year’s Man Booker longlist — but it’s an interesting story, well told, and there are worse ways to spend your time than reading this one.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, H. E. Bates, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, war

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H. E. Bates

Fair-stood-the-wind-for-france

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 255 pages; 2005.

H.E. Bates’ 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I’ve ever read. (The title comes from the first line of Agincourt, a poem by Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton.)

The story begins with John Franklin’s Royal Airforce plane crash-landing in Occupied France at the height of the Second World War. Franklin, who has been “actively operational” for almost a year and isn’t far off notching up his first 300-hours of flying time, is accompanied by a crew of four sergeants.

The five of them survive the plane going down in marshland, but Franklin’s left arm is badly injured. After walking for an entire day, they come to a small farm on the edge of a woods. Here, they are taken in by a mill-owner and his family, who hide them in an upstairs bedroom.

The men plan to escape to Spain, but Franklin’s injury has left him too weak to travel. A clandestine visit to a local doctor is arranged, but the only cure, it seems, is bed rest.

This does not go down well with his crew, who are anxious to head for the border. They are not sure whether to trust the mill owner and his family, and they are frightened to stay on French soil lest they be captured by German forces that patrol the local area.

Eventually, the crew are provided with fake travel papers, arranged by the mill owner, but Franklin decides to stay behind until his arm heals. During this time he is nursed by the mill-owner’s daughter, Françoise, a strangely quiet but observant and cool-headed customer, with whom he falls in love.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is not your average sappy romance, however. Set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates’ prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates’ writing is so stripped back — not one word is wasted — that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.

Bates is also very good at evoking time and place. Because much of the story occurs over the course of a hot summer, there are beautiful descriptions of the French countryside baking in the heat, which, in turn, makes Franklin homesick.

Of England, his other thoughts were simple. He wanted a cup of tea. Since it must be mid-afternoon he found himself alone in the room, listening for the encouraging, clean, beautiful sound of rattled tea-cups. But as he lay there he could hear nothing but the deep and audible silence of the full summer day, so strong and drowsy that it seemed to press both his mind and body deeply back into the bed. Diana [his “best girl”] and tea and England: all of them like small and faintly unreal clouds, far distant and at the point of evaporation, on the horizon of the present world. A long time before they come any nearer, he thought. Ah well!

There is much tenderness and quiet beauty in this story, but there is heart-ache, pain and death, too. As Franklin grapples with his predicament — should he stay, or should he go — the reader begins to fear for the pilot’s survival: no matter which he chooses, surely his life is in danger?

This a book about trust and intimacy, not only between two people, but between allies in war. It is gut-wrenchingly sad in places, but brims with optimism. And when I discovered, towards the end of the novel, that Franklin was just 22, I found myself reeling from the knowledge. His maturity, his insight, his care for others — not just Françoise, but his crewmen, who must have been younger still — made my heart lurch. I defy anyone to read this book and not get completely wrapped up in this lovely, occasionally daring, story.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is not only destined to be on my list of favourite reads of 2011 at year’s end, but one of my favourite books of all time. Do beg, borrow or buy a copy if you can.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Friedrich Christian Delius, Italy, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’ by Friedrich Christian Delius

Portrait-of-a-Mother

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 115 pages; 2010. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

It is rare for me to read a book more than once, so it must be exceptional for me to read it three times. But with Friedrich Christian Delius’ novella, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman — which won the 2009 Evangelical Book Prize — that’s exactly what I did. And it got better and better with each read.

The story is a simple one. It is January 1943 and a 21-year-old German woman, residing in Rome while her husband is redeployed on active service in North Africa, takes a stroll from her accommodation — a guest room in an old people’s home run by Evangelical nuns — to a concert at the church on Via Sicilia. She is eight months pregnant with her first child.

During the walk, which takes roughly an hour (a little shorter than the time required to read the novel), she admires the beauty of the Roman streets, thinks about her unborn child, reminisces about her courtship with her husband, Gert, a preacher-turned-solider, and tries not to worry about the future because it is out of her hands and, in her view, up to God’s will.

There is little plot or action of which to speak, because the novel works primarily on the basis that you are inside this woman’s head and privy to her most intimate thoughts. It’s not exactly stream-of-consciousness, but her inner monologue feels incredibly authentic as it leaps about from one subject to the next and keeps coming back to the issues that most concern her — how much she misses her husband, for instance, and how she cannot bear the stares of Italian men wherever she goes.

But during her walk, there’s a real sense that Margherita is trying to come to a crucial understanding of what it means to be German under the Third Reich and how her strong evangelical belief might be blinding her to the harsh realities of war. On more than one occasion she admits that “it was better not to know too much” but she is conscious of the need to pray for victory, although, somewhat tellingly, this is not out of pure national duty, but because it might bring her beloved husband home much sooner.

While she seems alarmingly naive — she believes that “no bombs would fall on Rome, that was certain, it was obvious, the English would not raze the Eternal city”, nor can she understand “why there is not enough bread in wartime, and why it is getting even scarcer” — there’s a real sense that maybe she’s keeping her thoughts in check because to do otherwise might prove too confronting to her sense of national identity.

Indeed, national identify is a recurring theme, as Margherita constantly mulls over her foreignness and the foreignness of her surroundings and the people she meets.

Other themes include her thankfulness — for food, shelter, safety — and her unwavering faith in God. It’s clear she is very religious, but there’s a telling passage, towards the end of the book, where she recalls how her father, a preacher, tried to lead workers, communists and Nazis “away from political ideas and win them for heavenly salvation” . And later still, she comes to realise that the Nazis subverted religious symbols, in particular the eagle of John the Evangelist, for their own propaganda.

For such a “gentle” book there are some very hard-hitting ideas about politics and religion in it.

Of course, I can’t conclude my review without mentioning the book’s “selling point”, which is largely that it comprises one very long 117-page sentence. It’s not quite as off-putting as it might sound, because it is written in bite-sized stanzas, with plenty of commas, to guide your eye. In fact, it has an incredible rhythm, with a gentle, lilting, almost musical quality to it, making it a joy to read.

And finally, if you’ve ever wanted to travel to Rome, this book will have you itching to book your flights. Delius writes so evocatively of its streetscapes and architecture that it feels very much like a love letter to a beautiful city.

——-

Just a reminder that I’m “in conversation with” Friedrich Christian Delius and his translator Jamie Bulloch at the Big Green Bookshop, London, Wood Green, N22 tomorrow evening — Friday September 17 at 7pm — to talk about this book and some of the issues I’ve hinted at in my review. Feel free to come along for an evening of free entertainment (and hopefully not too many uncomfortable sllences) and a glass of wine. But if you can’t make it, and have a question for the author, do leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to ask it on your behalf!

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Germany, Hans Fallada, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada

AloneinBerlin

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 608 pages; 2010. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.

Hans Fallada, the pen name of Rudolph Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen (1893-1947), reportedly wrote Alone in Berlin in just 24 days. And it shows.

This is a big, rambling book, with a loose narrative structure, and a cast of what seems like a million characters. It’s set in Berlin during the Second World War and focuses on one man’s efforts to resist the Nazis in the best way he knows how: by dropping postcards with anti-Hitler messages scrawled upon them in public buildings across the city. If he is caught, there is no doubt that Otto Quangel, an ordinary German, will be executed by the regime.

This sounds like a terrific premise for a book — and it is. I can honestly say that the first 200 or so pages are genuinely gripping, as Fallada introduces us to the characters, provides accounts of their troubled and occasionally trivial lives under the Third Reich, and shows how Otto, once a supporter of the Nazi regime, changes his mind when his only son is killed in the war. When together with his wife, Anna, he begins dropping anti-fascist postcards as an act of quiet rebellion you can’t help but admire him for it.

But the momentum of this novel, which is divided into four chunks, is lost in the big baggy structure of it. There are countless characters, many of whom simply drop out of the storyline without explanation. Often the Quango’s tale of resistance becomes subsidiary to other tangential threads, some of which are interesting stories in themselves — for instance, Hetty Haberles decision to shelter the weasel Enno Kluge from the Gestapo on the basis that they prosecuted her husband — but end up turning what should be the main narrative into mere background noise.

However, the book does throw up some important issues about politics, morality, truth, justice and humanity, which seem particularly prescient given the book was written in 1947 without the benefit of looking at the Nazi regime through decades of moral reflection and historical analysis. If there is any message to be taken from the story it is this, best summed up by one of the characters, Dr Reichhardt, who reassures Otto that his efforts of resistance were not useless:

“Well, it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end. […] Of course, Quangel, it would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us, such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we ARE alone, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.”

As much as I wanted to love this book, particularly it’s moral message (I read it very soon after A Woman in Berlin), I couldn’t overlook its woolly structure and its meandering narrative. Apparently the story is based on a real life case in which a poorly educated working-class couple conducted a three-year propaganda campaign during the Nazi regime. This is documented at the rear of the novel and, in many ways, was more interesting to read than Fallada’s fictionalised account.

Sadly, Fallada, who spent much of his adult life in an out of psychiatric care, did not live to see the publication of this book. It was translated into English for the first time in 2009, where it was published in the USA as Every Man Dies Alone.

Anonymous, Author, Book review, Germany, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Virago

‘A Woman In Berlin’ by Anonymous

WomaninBerlin

Non-fiction – paperback; Virago; 311 pages; 2005.

It’s true: the war is rolling towards Berlin. What was yesterday a distant rumble has now become a constant roar. We breathe the din; our ears are deafened to all but the heaviest guns. We’ve long given up trying to figure out where they are positioned. We are ringed in by barrels, and the circle is growing smaller by the hour.

So begins one of the most harrowing accounts of war-time Berlin you are ever likely to encounter. Indeed, the imminent war historian Antony Beevor, who writes the introduction to this edition, calls it “a war diary unlike any other…one of the most important personal accounts ever written”.

The diary begins on Friday 20 April 1945 and continues for just over two months until 22 June. It is written by an anonymous 34-year-old woman, whose husband is away fighting in the German Army. She has been bombed out of her own apartment and is now living in a furnished attic room owned by a former colleague, who has also been called up.

It chronicles the day-to-day struggle for survival in a city now under Russian occupation. We hear of the huge queues for food and water, the ransacking of government buildings in search of Nazi stockpiles, the constant fear that they will be bombed out of their homes. But the most shocking part of this book is the diarist’s account of mass rape that was carried out by Russian soldiers.

Fortunately, she doesn’t go into elaborate detail, but her thumbnail portraits of such barbarous events — she was raped several times over the course of a few days — are enough to fill the reader with horror. But this is an intelligent, well-educated woman, who, as a journalist had travelled the world and picked up numerous foreign languages along the way (including Russian), and so she adopts the most pragmatic approach that one could adopt when confronted with such brutality — on Tuesday, 1 May 1945, she writes:

No question about it: I have to find a single wolf to keep away the pack. An officer, as high-ranking as possible, a commandant, a general, whatever I can manage. After all, what are my brains for, my little knowledge of the enemy language?

While A Woman in Berlin might sound like terribly depressing subject matter, it somehow doesn’t feel that way when you read it. Yes, it’s distressing and occasionally very dark, but the diarist is so practical, so free from self-pity and so bloody tenacious, that you find yourself being swept up by her life, cheering her along, hoping she’ll come out the other side with her spirit and faculties intact. It helps, too, that the book is riddled with dark humour, such as this exchange between a friend she manages to track down on 21 May:

Ilse and I hastily exchange the first sentences: ‘How many times were you raped, Ilse?’ ‘Four, and you?’ ‘No idea, I had to work my way up the ranks, from supply train to major.’

I also have to point out how terribly easy this book is to read. It feels very much like a novel, not a diary. She has such an eye for detail that she brings everything to life in beautiful descriptive passages, such as this one contained in her entry for 10 May:

All along the way we see debris left by the troops: gutted cars, burned-out tanks, battered gun-carriages. Occasional posters in Russian celebrating May Day, Stalin, the victory. Here, too, there are scarcely any people. Now and then some pitiful creature darts by — a man in shirt sleeves, a woman with dishevelled hair. No one pays us much attention. A woman passes us, barefoot and bedraggled. She answers our questions — ‘Yes, the bridge is still there’ — and hurries away. Barefoot? In Berlin? I’ve never seen a woman in that condition before. The bridge is still blocked by a barricade of rubble; my heart is pounding as we slip through a gap.

And this, more startling, image contained in her entry dated Thursday, 26 April:

An image from the street: a man pushing a wheelbarrow with a dead woman on top, stiff as a board. Loose grey strands of hair fluttering, a blue kitchen apron. Her withered legs in grey stockings sticking out the end of the wheelbarrow. Hardly anyone gave her a second glance. Just like when they used to ignore the rubbish being hauled away.

The publishing history and the “outing” of the anonymous author’s identity is almost as interesting as the book itself. A Woman in Berlin was first published in an English translation in the US in 1954 and the UK in 1955. When a German language edition was published in 1960 it caused an uproar, because as Antony Beevor explains, “rape and sexual collaboration for survival were taboo subjects”.  The author apparently claimed she did not want it published again in her lifetime. She died in 2001 and it was republished in 2003. You can find out more about her in this wikipedia entry.