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‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena ****

One of the splendid Peirene Press’ new publications is Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk.  Part of the Home in Exile series, this ‘literary bestseller that took the Baltics by storm’, by an author who has written over twenty books, has been translated from its original Latvian into English for the first time.  This novel, Ikstena’s most recent, won the 2015 Annual Latvian Literature Award for Best Prose, and has been highly lauded.  I was particularly interested in reading this title, as I travelled around the Baltics last summer, and fell in love with Latvia.

Founder of Peirene Press, Meike Ziervogel, writes: ‘At first glance this novel depicts a troubled mother-daughter relationship set in the Soviet-ruled Baltics between 1969 and 1989.  Yet just beneath the surface lies something far more positive: the story of three generations of women, and the importance of a grandmother in giving her granddaughter what her daughter is unable to promote – love, and the desire for life.’

Soviet Milk ‘considers the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual.  The central character in the story – a nameless woman – tries to follow her calling as a doctor.  But then the state steps in.  She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter.’  This woman, who suffers with depression, is banished to a small village in the Latvian countryside, miles away from her home in the capital, Riga.  Soviet Milk is dark, and stark, in what it depicts, particularly with regard to the central character.  The narrator reflects, in sadness: ‘I don’t remember Mother ever hugging me much, but I remember her needle-pricked thigh. where she practised injections.  I remember her in bed with blue lips the first time she overdosed, possibly as part of some medical experiment.’38190974

The narrator begins her account by telling us that she does not remember her birth in October 1969.  She goes on to say: ‘I do remember, or at least I can picture, the golden, tender calm of October, alternating with foreboding, of a long period of darkness.  It’s a kind of boundary month, at least in the climate of this latitude, where seasons change slowly and autumn only gradually gives way to winter.’  The narrator’s mother abandons her at birth, and returns five days later.  As her childhood progresses, she spends a great deal of time with her grandparents, the only constant in her life.  Of them, she reflects: ‘My grandmother and step-grandfather were the closest things I had to parents.  My mother stood somewhere outside the family.  Our lives revolved around her; we depended on her – but not for maternal nurturing.  Now and then, her struggles with her demons and angels would spill over into our daily routine, forcing us to acknowledge the fragile boundary between life and death.’  Many recollections of this interesting and complex fractured family dynamic follow.

As well as largely being raised by her kindly grandparents, and having less physical and emotional contact than she would have wished with her troubled mother, Soviet Milk describes the effects upon the narrator of what it was like to grow up in such a regime.  ‘Despite these absurdities,’ she says, ‘my mother continued to raise me as an honourable and faithful young Soviet citizen.  Yet within me blossomed a hatred for the duplicity and hypocrisy of this existence.  We carried flags in the May and November parades in honour of the Red Army, the Revolution and Communism, while at home we crossed ourselves and waited for the English army to come and free Latvia from the Russian boot.’

Ikstena’s imagery is powerful.  When the daughter’s father dies in his apartment, ’emaciated, gasping’, he is found in the following state: ‘Beneath him, on the stained day bed and all over the floor, newspapers displayed the faces of smiling workers and stern Politburo members.  He was lying upon words that promised five-year growth in a single year and extolled the superior morality of the people who were building Communism…  He was lying among words advocating the diversion of rivers, the conversion of churches into storehouses for mineral fertilizers, and the destruction of the literature, art and sculpture of our Latvian heritage.’

Margita Gailitis’ translation is fluid and understanding.  The structure of Soviet Milk works incredibly well.  It is told in short vignettes, which encompass remembrances of the narrator’s childhood, and musings upon her place in the world.  The perspective of her mother, the book’s central character, has also been used in alternating chapters.  Soviet Milk is a perceptive and introspective work.  Its character portraits are both multilayered and revealing.  One soon gets into the rhythm of the shifting perspectives, and the sharpness of what it demonstrates of the Soviet regime is sure to stay with each reader long after the final page has been read.

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Abandoned Books: ‘Collected Stories’ by Colette and ‘After the Death of Ellen Keldberg’ by Eddie Thomas Petersen

Collected Stories by Colette 9780374518653
I have been looking forward to Colette’s Collected Stories for such a long time. Translated by Antonia White, an author whom I enjoy, I expected that these tales would be immersive, beautifully written, and memorable. I normally find Colette’s work immediately absorbing and transporting, so I was surprised when I did not find myself becoming immersed in this early on. These are largely really more like sketches and monologues than short stories, and as most of them feature Colette, or a facsimile of herself, either as narrator or main character, it feels like a series of biographical fragments rather than a collection of stories.

Collected Stories had very little of the pull which I was expecting. There was little of the charm and wit of her longer works, too. Perhaps because the collection which I read is comprised of earlier stories, they are not as polished as her later work. Regardless, I felt markedly underwhelmed by this collection. I enjoyed a couple of the stories, but the plots included were largely very thin on the ground, and the characters difficult to connect with.

White’s translation felt seamless, and I had no problem with the prose itself. Collected Stories feels like an anomaly in what I have read of Colette’s thus far. I found this collection lacklustre and disappointing, but am hoping that it is just a blip in her oeuvre, as I would very much like to read the rest of Colette’s full-lenth work in future.

 

9781999944841After the Death of Ellen Keldberg by Eddie Thomas Petersen
Eddie Thomas Petersen’s After the Death of Ellen Keldberg has been translated from its original Danish by Toby Bainton. Set in the Danish seaside town of Skagen, which is ‘an artists’ paradise in summer, but only the locals belong there in winter’, a mystery begins to unfold when the dead body of a woman named Ellen Keldberg is discovered on a bench.

Petersen immediately sets the scene, in brief descriptive prose: ‘Bluish white, like skimmed milk, the mist seems so near that you could gather it up in your hands. The storm has blown itself out in the night and the wind has dropped, but you can still hear the waves breaking in a hollow roar out by the bay.’ There is nothing particularly wrong with the prose here, but I found the conversations to be stilted and unrealistic for the most part, and the majority of the writing which followed too matter-of-fact, and even a little dull at times. The translation used some quite old-fashioned words and phrases which made the novel seem dated.

My expectations were markedly different to what I found within the pages of this novel. Whilst I found the premise of After the Death of Ellen Keldberg interesting enough, for this genre of novel, it felt too slow-going, and plodded along in rather a sluggish manner. The book’s blurb proclaims that this is a ‘subtle novel… an enthralling family saga, a slow-burning murder mystery, and a portrait of Skagen in the dark and in the snow, full of alliances and old secrets.’ Slow is correct. Whilst I was expecting a piece of immersive Nordic Noir, I received something which felt as though it hardly got going.

After the Death of Ellen Keldberg was not at all what I was expecting, and I felt distanced from the characters from the outset. They did not appear particularly interesting to me; nor were they three-dimensional. The entirety of the novel felt rather lacklustre, and I would not rush to read another of Petersen’s novels.

 

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Penguin Moderns: Georges Simenon and William Carlos Williams

Letter to My Mother by Georges Simenon (#39) ****9780241339664

I love reading correspondence, and was looking forward to the extended Letter to My Mother, written by Georges Simenon, most famous for his Maigret series of detective novels.  This is a ‘stark, confessional letter to his dead mother [which] explores the complexity of parent-child relationships and the bitterness of things unsaid.’  First published in 1974, and translated from its original French by Ralph Manhem, Letter to My Mother is filled with sadness from its beginning.  Simenon writes, very early on, ‘As you are well aware, we never loved each other in your lifetime  Both of us pretended.’

Simenon grew up in the Belgian city of Liege, and wished to revisit his pained childhood here.  A period of three and a half years elapsed between the death of Simenon’s mother and the writing of this letter, and he is almost seventy years old when he puts pen to paper.  He tells her about this, stating: ‘perhaps it’s only now that I’m beginning to understand you.  Throughout my childhood and adolescence I lived under one roof with you, I lived with you, but when I left for Paris at the age of nineteen, you were still a stranger to me.’  Even when he was young, Simenon was aware of his mother’s problems: ‘You endured life.  You didn’t live it.’  He then muses, after speaking of the favour his mother showed his younger brother: ‘It seems to me now that perhaps you needed a villain in the family, and that villain was me.’

The relationship between Simenon and his mother was fraught and complicated.  This tender and honest letter details their troubled interactions, and his mother’s lack of warmth toward him.  He speaks throughout about the unknown events of his mother’s own childhood, which may have caused her to behave in the disconcerting way which she often did.  Writing such a letter is a brave act; it seems a shame that his mother was never able to see it.

 

Death the Barber by William Carlos Williams (#40) ****

9780241339824The fortieth Penguin Modern publication is a collection of poetry by William Carlos Williams, entitled Death the Barber.  The poems here are ‘filled with bright, unforgettable images… [which] revolutionised American verse, and made him one of the greatest twentieth-century poets.’  I do not recall having read any of Williams’ work prior to this, and was expecting something akin to e.e. cummings.  Whilst I was able to draw some similarities between the work of both poets, their work is certainly distinctive and quite vastly different from one another’s.

The poems in Death the Barber are taken from various collections published between 1917 and 1962.  Whilst I recognised ‘This Is Just to Say’, the rest of the poems here were new to me, and have certainly sparked an interest within me to read more of Williams’ work.  There is so much of interest here, and the varied themes and imagery made it really enjoyable.  Whilst some of the poems seem simplistic at first, there is a lot of depth to them.  I shall end this review with two of my favourite extracts from this brief collection.

From ‘Pastoral’:
The little sparrows
hop vigorously
about the pavement
quarrelling
with sharp voices
over those things
that interest them.
But we who are wiser
shut ourselves in
on either hand
and no one knows
whether we think good
or evil.’

From ‘To Waken an Old Lady’:
Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli ****

First published in 2013.

Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter is heralded as ‘a miniature masterpiece’ in its blurb, and tells ‘the story of three soldiers who capture a Jewish prisoner and face a chilling choice.’  It was first published in France in 2012, and has been translated from its original French by Sam Taylor, recent translator of Laurent Binet’s excellent novel HHhH.  It is Mingarelli’s first work to appear in English.

A Meal in Winter is set during the Second World War in the depths of the Polish countryside.  It begins in the following way: ‘They had rung the iron gong outside and it was still echoing, at first for real in the courtyard, and then, for a longer time, inside our heads’.  The entirety of the novella is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed German narrator.

‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli

Three soldiers, including the narrator, are sent out on a mission at dawn, ‘before the first shootings’.  Their mission is to capture a Jew and take him back to their base, where he or she will be dealt with.  The narrator’s fellow soldiers are named Bauer and Emmerich, the only two protagonists in the novella to have been given names.  The entire novella has been split into quite short chapters, and is quite simple in its prose style, which contrasts rather chillingly at times with the futility which it presents.  It is tinged throughout with memories from the pre-war past of the soldiers, as well as strange foreshadowings of the future.

In the story, the soldiers find a tiny hidden dwelling in the countryside, spotting a ‘chimney which was barely raised above the ground’.  A man emerges from the depths: ‘We didn’t see anything in his eyes either – no fear, no despair…  All we could see of his face were his eyes…  They were ringed with dirt and fatigue, but not enough to hide his youth.  Despite the tiredness they showed, they still shone with life’.  This man is referred to from this point onwards as ‘the Jew’.  This, and other elements within the novella, are harrowing in terms of the impersonal way in which Jews were viewed by the German soldiers: ‘We were no longer allowed to kill them when we found them, unless an officer was present to vouch for the fact.  These days, we had to bring them back’.  The narrator goes on to say, ‘We’d only caught one, but he smelt bad enough for ten’.

Whilst walking in the countryside with the Jew in tow, the men find a closed-up house and break in.  They begin to burn the furniture in order to warm up and cook a meal – a soup which is savoured.  Mingarelli’s setting has been developed well, and some of the scenes which he has crafted are incredibly vivid.  It feels as though he has broken the constraints of the narrowed view that all German soldiers viewed Jews with scorn, and has included some shreds of compassion for the prisoner, however small.  In this way, Mingarelli demonstrates both the good and evil which wartime situations can produce.  A Meal in Winter is most interesting with respect to the ways in which the language barrier causes them to communicate using different methods.  Mingarelli has crafted a novella which is very dark in places, and is quite unsettling in the foreboding which it builds.

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‘Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital’ by Franz Hessel ****

I adore books about flaneurs; I find them absolutely fascinating.  Thus, I was thrilled to come across Franz Hessel’s Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital whilst browsing in a bookshop, and purchased a copy immediately.  First published in Germany in 1929, it was not until 2016 that Walking in Berlin was translated into English by Amanda DeMarco.  Hessel grew up in Berlin, and DeMarco is currently based there, which I feel is a nice and considered touch.

The book promises ‘a walk around 1920s Berlin with one of its greatest luminaries’.  Since its original publication, Hessel’s ‘timeless guide’ has been highly praised.  In her introduction, DeMarco notes that the book was ‘a critical success upon its publication… [but was] largely forgotten after the Second World War.’  Walter Benjamin, a great friend of Hessel’s, declares it ‘an absolutely epic book, a walking remembrance’.  The Independent writes that it ‘captures a portrait of a city on the brink of irrevocable change’.  The Observer calls it a ‘love letter to the city’, and the Times Literary Supplement states that it is ‘not only an important record of old Berlin; it is a testimony to its enduring spirit.’ 9781925228359

Hessel takes his readers on a walk around much of Weimar-era Berlin, splitting his observations into essays relating to particular districts.  He takes in ‘some of the most fascinating sights the city has to offer, many of which still exist in some form today’.  Many of these sights are seen on foot, as Hessel wove through one street after another, but the odd one was conducted whilst in a car, or on a day-long tour with a lot of Americans.  DeMarco writes that ‘Hessel’s knowledge of city history was extensive, gleaned from an art-history education and an avid personal interest in the cultural sediment that had accumulated around him.  It is evident in these pages that history was alive and present for him, visible in the architecture.  All it took was a glimpse of a statue or bridge or gate to send Hessel conjuring up the figures and era that produced it.’  Despite his knowledge of the city, Hessel wished to present his findings here as though he was coming to Berlin for the first time.

Of course, Berlin, like many other cities, was going through a period of rapid modernisation during the 1920s.  Thus, the city which he describes notes the changes which are occurring, as well as the way things used to be when Hessel was a child.  Of this, DeMarco writes: ‘… the breathless pace of his descriptions reveals the new heartbeat of a populace that was cathartically shaking off the trauma of the First World War, while frantically grasping for economic stability.’  Of his city, Hessel tells us of Berlin’s ongoing metamorphosis: ‘I’ll have to educate myself in local history, take an interest in both the past and future of this city, a city that’s always on the go, always in the middle of becoming something else.’

The first essay, ‘The Suspect’, begins with Hussel observing people at work, and young girls at play.  From his position as a flaneur, he writes of the suspicion which the observed sometimes felt toward him: ‘I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.’  Throughout, Hessel’s voice is chatty, and almost playful.  As he continues his journey, he comes across many different people – stocking menders, architects, factory workers, shopkeepers, the rich and the poor, upperclass partygoers, and tour guides, to name but a few.  As Hessel makes his way around, he discusses art, literature, culture, and fashion, as well as streets already lost to the annals of time in the 1920s.

Throughout, Hessel’s writing is layered and sumptuous.  In the extended essay entitled ‘A Tour’, he joins a sightseeing buggy, intending to try and see Berlin through the eyes of a traveller.  During his experience, he weaves his own childhood memories of the city in with what he observes: ‘Now we’re gliding past the long facade of the library, its sunny side.  Silks, leathers and metals entice from the marquees of elegant shops.  The lace curtains at Restaurant Hiller awaken distant memories of happy hours, the nearly forgotten fragrance of lobster and Chablis, the old porter who led you so discreetly to the cabinets particuliers.  I tear myself away – I’m a foreigner here, after all – only to be caught up again.  Travel agencies, mesmerising displays of world maps and globes, the magic of the little green books with red notes, seductive names of distant cities.  Ah, these blessed departures from Berlin!  How callously one leaves our beloved city.’

I love Berlin; when I visited some years ago, I found it a vibrant and hip city, filled with so much history.  Hessel’s book has made me want to book plane tickets to explore the city once more, with his notes in hand this time around.  Pick up Walking in Berlin, and expect that it will inspire a great wanderlust in you.  Hessel describes it, quite rightly, as a city filled with treasures.  It was a sheer pleasure to be transported to a Berlin which I half-recognised, and seeing it through the eyes of another brought a delightful freshness.

Walking in Berlin is a lovely and often quite touching rumination on the many things which are needed to make a city, and has wonderful asides which discuss the experience of being a flaneur: ‘The flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces… [and they] become letters that yield the words, sentences and pages of a book that is always new.’  It seems fitting to end this review with something which Hessel writes in his afterword.  ‘Now, dear fellow citizens,’ he says, ‘please don’t reproach me for all of the important and noteworthy things that I’ve overlooked; rather, go out yourselves, aimlessly, just as I have done, on hazard’s little voyages of discovery.  You don’t have time?  That’s false ambition speaking.’

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‘Our Life in the Forest’ by Marie Darrieussecq ***

I have only read one of French author Marie Darrieussecq’s novels to date, All the Way, but I found it rather too offbeat and strange for my personal taste, and was not overly enamoured with it.  Her newest offering to have been translated into English by Penny Hueston, however, sounded most interesting.  Whilst still not a fan by any means of science fiction, I have been reading a few dystopian tomes of late, and thought I would give Our Life in the Forest a go.

Its blurb states that the novel will challenge ‘our ideas about the future, about organ-trafficking, about identity, clones, and the place of the individual in a surveillance state.’  Le Monde promises that ‘the reader will be captivated’; The Observer calls Darrieussecq’s talent ‘dazzling’; and Liberation writes: ‘… reducing this book to a dystopian tale is doing it a disservice…  A journal from beyond the grave, as time runs out…  And a profound novel about loneliness.’

Set in the near future, ‘a woman is writing in the depths of a forest.  She’s cold.  Her body is falling apart, as is the world around her.  She’s lost the use of one eye; she’s down to one kidney, one lung.  Before, in the city, she was a psychotherapist, treating patients 9781925603781who had suffered trauma…  Every two weeks, she travelled out to the Rest Centre, to visit her “half”, Marie, her spitting image, who lay in an induced coma, her body parts available whenever the woman needed them.’  This woman, our narrator, has fled to the forest along with many other people, ‘as a form of resistance against the terror in the city.’  Their halves live in the forest with them, and have to be taught how to function as humanly as is possible.  Only the privileged have halves, too; those who cannot afford the full body clones which can be used for organ replacement and the like, have jars, which are filled with just a few organs.  Those who cannot afford the jars have no help or assurance at all.

Whilst introducing her plight, the narrator admonishes herself: ‘Time to get a grip.  I have to tell this story.  I have to try to understand it by laying things out in some sort of order.  By rounding up the bits and pieces.  Because it’s not going well.  It’s not okay, right now, all that.  Not okay at all.’  She then goes on to describe her physical body, and the ways in which it has begun to fail her.  From the outset, she has an awareness of her own mortality: ‘I’m not in good shape.  I won’t have time to reread this.  Or to write a plan.  I’ll just write it as it comes.’  She is, she tells her audience, ‘writing in order to understand, and to bear witness – in a notebook, obviously, with a graphite pencil (you can still find them).’

Interestingly, the halves which belong to the characters are the only beings here which are given names.  None of the living protagonists, or those whom the narrator briefly comes into contact with, are really identifiable from the mass.  Using this technique, Darrieussecq ensures that her novel is at once anonymous and intimate.  It feels almost as though the crisis which she has created has befallen everyone, without exception.  Indeed, the narrator assumes that we know parts of her story, and have an understanding of the changed world which she lives in, already.

The world building in Our Life in the Forest is effective in many ways, but there are certainly a few elements which could have done with more explanation.  To me, a relative newcomer to the dystopian genre, I found some elements to be far more interesting than others.  Our Life in the Forest has been quite intricately crafted, and a lot of thought has clearly gone into the plausibility of scenes and settings.  However, there is an emotionless quality to it, which in turn creates a kind of detachment.  I found my reading experience to be interesting enough, but to me, the novel was not wholly satisfying.

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One From the Archive: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet ****

“Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich – chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells “HHhH”.

9780099555643“All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.”

I was so very impressed by Laurence Binet’s HHhH. I found the entire novel incredibly engrossing, and I loved the mixture of fact and fiction which Binet had used. The different narrative structures which he made use of worked wonderfully, both singularly and together. The translation has been rendered with such care and precision that it never feels awkward, as many pieces of translated fiction can so easily. Binet’s writing suits the story he has crafted, and his take on the tale is really quite chilling at times. He portrays the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime very well indeed. His descriptions of Prague, one of my favourite cities, are exquisite.

I have never before read a book without page numbers, but I am glad that this was the first. Odd as it may sound, the structure of the book just does not make them necessary. HHhH is a book to be drawn into and to forget the world around you as you continue to read. It is more interesting in such cases, I feel, to be so engrossed that you no longer wonder how many pages you have left to go until you reach the end. HHhH is marvellously paced, particularly towards the end, and is a must read for any self-confessed history nerds out there.

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