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The Book Trail: From Penelope Lively to Elie Wiesel

I am beginning this Book Trail post with a memoir which I read as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and which I very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelope Lively 9780141188324
This autobiography is about growing up in Egypt. It is also an investigation into childhood perception in which the author uses herself and her memories as an insight into how children see and know. It is a look at Eygpt up to, and including, World War II from a small girl’s point of view, which is also, ultimately, a moving and rather sad picture of an isolated and lonely little girl.

 

2. The Italics are Mine by Nina Berberova
This is the autobiography of Nina Berberova, who was born in St Petersburg in 1901, the only child of an Armenian father and a North Russian mother. After the Revolution, and the persecution of intellectuals which followed, she was forced to flee to Paris, where she was to remain for 25 years. There she formed part of a group of literary Russian emigres that included Gorky, Bunin, Svetaeva, Nabokov and Akhmatova, and earned a precarious living as a journalist, barely surviving the hardship and poverty of exile. In 1950 she left France for the United States to begin a new life with no money and no knowledge of English. She is now a retired Professor of Russian Literature at Princeton, and has belatedly been acclaimed for the short novels she wrote in the 1930s and ’40s.

 

251472953. Zoo or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
While living in exile in Berlin, the formidable literary critic Viktor Shklovsky fell in love with Elsa Triolet. He fell into the habit of sending Elsa several letters a day, a situation she accepted under one condition: he was forbidden to write about love. Zoo, or Letters Not about Love is an epistolary novel born of this constraint, and although the brilliant and playful letters contained here cover everything from observations about contemporary German and Russian life to theories of art and literature, nonetheless every one of them is indirectly dedicated to the one topic they are all required to avoid: their author’s own unrequited love.

 

4. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

5. Vain Art of the Fugue by Dumitru Tepeneag 759968
Clutching a bouquet of flowers, hurrying to catch his bus, and arguing with the driver once he’s on, a man rushes to a train station platform to meet a woman. This sequence of events occurs and recurs in remarkably different variations in Vain Art of the Fugue.  In one version, the bus driver ignores the traffic signals and is killed in the ensuing crash. In another, the protagonist is thrown off the bus, and as he chases after it, a crowd of strangers joins him in the pursuit.  As the book unfolds, the protagonist, his lovers, and the people he meets become increasingly vivid and complex figures in the crowded Bucharest cityscape. Themes, conflicts, and characters interweave and overlap, creating a book that is at once chaotic and perfectly composed.

 

6. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

48109717. Little Fingers by Filip Florian
In a little town in Romania, a mass grave is discovered near the excavations of a Roman fort. Are the dead the victims of a medieval plague or, perhaps, of a Communist firing squad? And why are finger bones disappearing from the pit each night? Petrus, a young archaeologist, decides to do some investigating of his own.   Meanwhile, an Orthodox monk in the surrounding mountains stumbles into history when he becomes the father confessor of a partisan bent on bringing down the government, one handmade grenade and one derailed train at a time. Not to mention a team of Argentinean forensic anthropologists who arrive in town in a cloud of rock music, shredded jeans, and tequila.   Florian has packed real history, a religious pilgrimage, a criminal investigation, a recipe for roast pigeon, and a love story into two hundred truly remarkable pages.

 

8. The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel
Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel’s parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, he survives the war, but in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting with Ilonka.  He settles in Vienna, then Paris, and finally, after a failed marriage, in New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually, he falls in with a group of exiles: a Spanish Civil War veteran, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, a victim of Stalinism, a former Israeli intelligence agent, and a rabbi—a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel’s feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who is barely able to communicate but who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any been added to your list?

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Two Books About Haiti

I have noticed of late that a few reading friends tend to theme the books which they read, choosing several about the same topic and reading them in quick succession.  Having been granted two galleys about Haiti at around the same time, I thought that I would read them back to back, for what I hoped would be an immersive cultural experience.  One of the books, Roxane Gay’s Ayiti, is a short story collection, and the other, Maps Are Lines We Draw by Alison Coffelt, is a travel memoir.

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Ayiti by Roxane Gay ****
I have heard nothing but praise for Roxane Gay, and this collection of tales set entirely in Haiti – ‘a place run through with pain’ – really appealed to me.  Ayiti is accurately described in its blurb as ‘a powerful collection exploring the Haitian diaspora experience’.  Some of the stories included are little more than vignettes, or fragments of tales, examining one or two elements of the migrant experience, and covering just a couple of pages.  Others are much longer, and have a lot of depth to them.

Gay’s prose has a sensual vivacity to it.  The second story, ‘About My Father’s Accent’, for example, begins: ‘He knows it’s there.  He knows it’s thick, thicker even than my mother’s.  He’s been on American soil for nearly thirty years, but his voice sounds like Port-au-Prince, the crowded streets, the blaring horns, the smell of grilled meat and roasting corn, the heat, thick and still.’

Many themes are touched upon and tackled here.  Gay writes about racism, misconceptions about the Haitian culture, superstition, medicine, tradition, sex and sexuality, violence, crime, the changing face of Haiti over time, and the family unit.  The stories in Ayiti are emotive and thought-provoking; every single story, no matter its length, is memorable, and there is a real power to the collection.

 

Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Roadtrip Through Haiti by Allison Coffelt ** cover127304-medium
Throughout Maps Are Lines We Draw, Allison Coffelt rather briefly details a trip which she takes across Haiti, along with Dr. Jean Gardy Marius, founder of the public health organisation OSAPO.  In Haiti, she writes, ‘she embarked on a life-changing journey that would weave Haiti’s proud, tumultuous history and present reality into her life forever.’

Maps Are Lines We Draw is rather a short travel memoir, told using an entirely fragmented style which weaves together experiences from Coffelt’s trip, childhood memories, and many facts about Haiti.  Whilst it was interesting enough to read about her trip, there was quite a jarring edge to the structure.  I found it quite bitty and inconsistent due to the seemingly randomly placed fragments of thought and memory.  The author uses a lot of quotes from various guides, but there is rarely an exploration of them; rather, they feel like random appendages which have been placed willy-nilly in order to make up a wordcount in a GCSE essay.  At several points, it read simply like a factbook.

I love the fragmented style of prose when it is used in fiction, but I do not feel as though it works well with regard to non-fiction.  There needs to be an overarching, controlled structure for works such as this.  Only the sections on Haiti’s history have been approached well.  Whilst Maps Are Lines We Draw is enlightening in some ways, it is markedly problematic and frustrating in others.

 

 

I have very much enjoyed my first deliberate experience of reading two books with very similar subject matter, despite enjoying one far more than the other!  Is this something that you personally do often?  Do you have any books along the same themes, or about the same topic or geographical location, which you would recommend reading one after the other?  Would you like to see more twinned reviews like this on the blog?

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‘Two Under the Indian Sun’ by Rumer Godden ****

I cannot wait to travel to India at some point in the next few years, and was thus very much looking forward to deciding on my Indian book choice for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  There were so many intriguing and tantalising-looking works of fiction which I could have chosen, but I decided to go with something a little more unusual, and picked up Two Under the Indian Sun by sisters Jon and Rumer Godden.

I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before.  I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India.  Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.84b6c72c80c3e0ffac1edd779348a767

The girls had both lived in India as very small children, along with their two younger sisters, Nancy and Rose, but, as was the custom at the time, were sent to live with their grandmother and maiden aunts in London.  In the meantime, their family, whose father works in India, had moved from their old home in Assam to the town of Narayangunj.  When they arrived back in India, they realised that they had been homesick all along.

The girls’ observations of the world around them are sometimes contrasted with their experiences of India as adults, and everything is consistently captured using the most beautiful prose: ‘Early mornings seem more precious in India than anywhere else; it is not only the freshness before the heat, the colours muted by the light, the sparkle of dew; it is the time for cleansing and for prayer.’  Highly vivid and sensual descriptions are given throughout of the girls’ surroundings: ‘Perhaps the thing we had missed more than anything else was the dust: the feel of the sunbaked Indian dust between sandals and bare toes; that and the smell.  It was the honey smell of the fuzz-buzz flowers of thorn trees in the sun, and the smell of open drains and urine, of coconut oil on shining black human hair, of mustard cooking oil and the blue smoke from cowdung used as fuel; it was a smell redolent of the sun, more alive and vivid than anything in the West, to us the smell of India.’

The preface of Two Under the Indian Sun begins: ‘This is not an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone, a few years that will always be timeless for us; an evocation that we hope is as truthful as memory can ever be.’  Interestingly, although published several decades earlier, Jon and Rumer address many similar questions to those which Penelope Lively explores in her memoir of life in 1930s and 1940s Egypt, Oleander, Jacaranda.  All three authors write about the reliability of memory, particularly those made in childhood.

Spreads of rather charming photographs have been included in Two Under the Indian Sun, and these complement the memoir wonderfully.  The girls’ relationship with one another is beautifully evoked; whilst they fight from time to time, they write that they ‘were so close that between them was a passing of thought, of feeling, of knowing without any need for words.’  The girls feel an overarching affinity for life in India, something else which is shared between them: ‘Our house was English streaked with Indian, or Indian streaked with English.  It might have been an uneasy hybrid but we were completely and happily at home.’

The voice which Jon and Rumer have created together feel fluid, and I loved the shifts between describing themselves as ‘Jon and Rumer’ and then ‘we’.  Whilst it can occasionally be described as dark, Two Under the Indian Sun is largely a charming memoir, filled with all kinds of quaint details, and told with a light and often funny collaborative voice.  Their portrayal, despite those nods to the darkness which they know exists in their adoptive country, is largely an idyllic one.  They enjoy having personal freedom in India, which is markedly different to the rather strict and proper conditions which they lived under in London: ‘We were free of everyone and everything and, as hares take on the colour of their surroundings, we disappeared, each going our separate ways except during the period of Nana, when we were taken for a walk every morning.’  Two Under the Indian Sun is a lovely and joyful book to read, offering a multilayered portrait of India at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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‘Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived’ by Penelope Lively ****

I have been wanting to read Penelope Lively’s childhood memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda, for such a long time, and it was thus one of my first choices on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge list.  I have read and enjoyed several of Lively’s novels in the past, and was keen to learn about the woman herself.  Where better to start than with her own memories of her childhood, lived in comfort in Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s?

9780141188324Almost every review on the Penguin paperback edition which I purchased spoke of how ’emotive’ Lively’s memoir is.  The Washington Times writes: ‘She sees herself with clarity as both child and adult, a rare accomplishment indeed’.  The Times believes her autobiography to be: ‘Unsentimental yet so vividly evocative that you can smell the dung, the jacaranda and the oleander.  It offers potent glimpses of British colonial life…  The result is a wise, colourful and touching tale.’

In her modest preface, Lively writes: ‘My childhood is no more – or less – interesting than anyone else’s.  It has two particularities.  One is that I was a product of one society but was learning how to perceive the world in the ambience of a quite different culture.  I grew up English, in Egypt.  The other is that I was cared for by someone who was not my mother, and that it was a childhood which came to an abrupt and traumatic end.’  Indeed, after living all of her early life in Egypt, and most of it just outside Cairo, Lively had to move to England after the Second World War, following the divorce of her parents; to the young Penelope, they are ‘peripheral figures… for whom I felt an interested regard but no intense commitment’.  Of course, her nurse, Lucy, who is variously described as ‘the centre of my universe’, is not part of her new life.

Lively’s aim in Oleander, Jacaranda was to ‘recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood – in so far as any of us can do such a thing – and use this as the vehicle for a reflection on the way in which children perceive.’  Whilst she recognises that her child and adult selves are linked in many ways, she is able to separate them for the purposes of her memoir.  She writes: ‘As, writing this, I think with equal wonder of that irretrievable child, and of the eerie relationship between her mind and mine.  She is myself, but a self which is unreachable except by means of such miraculously surviving moments of being: the action within.’

At the forefront of her exploration into childhood is the untrustworthy element of memory: ‘One of the problems with this assemblage of slides in the head is that they cannot be sorted chronologically.  All habits are geared towards the linear, the sequential, but memory refuses such orderliness.’  With this constantly in her mind, Lively presents both her recollections, and the historical facts, of spending her formative years in such a turbulent and fascinating period, and a place so different from the England that she would later call home.

The descriptions in Oleander, Jacaranda are sumptuous.  When talking of her daily routine, for example, she writes: ‘The daily walks with Lucy are merged now into one single acute recollection, in which the whole thing hangs suspended in vibrant detail – the mimosa and the naked leaping children and the grey mud-caked threatening spectres of the gamooses.  The pink and blue and lime green of children’s clothes, the white of galabiyas, the black humps of squatting women.’  Lively’s observations of her young self feel both thorough and beautifully handled: ‘No thought at all here, just observation – the young child’s ability to focus entirely on the moment, to direct attention upon the here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation.  It is also the Wordsworthian version of the physical world: the splendour in the grass.  And, especially, Virginia Woolf’s creation of the child’s eye view.  A way of seeing that is almost lost in adult life.’

Throughout Oleander, Jacaranda, Lively explores our capacities for recollection.  Her memoir is one which feels balanced and measured from its opening page.  There are few moments of drama, or melodrama; things happen which make a great impression on Lively as a child, but the importance of the everyday shines through.  Lively’s voice is charming and beguiling.  It is fascinating to see those moments where her childhood memories and adult eyes meet, particularly when Lively discusses her return to Egypt in the 1980s.  Oleander, Jacaranda is honest, warm, and intelligent.  Lively somehow manages to make a very specific period of her life feel timeless in her depictions, and in consequence, her memoir of childhood is a joy to read.

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‘The Hacienda’ by Lisa St Aubin de Teran ***

As with most of the books which I have been reading and reviewing of late, Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s The Hacienda was chosen for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I have read a couple of the author’s novels in the past, but have never come across any of her non-fiction before.  This particular memoir, which begins when de Teran is just seventeen years old, has been described as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘mesmerising’.

9780316816885In the 1970s, whilst still a teenager, de Teran got married to a Venezuelan man, twenty years older than herself, whom she had a whirlwind romance with in London.  She ‘followed her new husband, South American aristocrat and bank robber, Don Jaime Teran, to his hacienda, deep in the Venezuelan Andes.’  On the vast avocado and sugarcane plantation, she and Jaime live their different lives; she is left largely to fend for herself, with little knowledge of the local dialect.  Despite this, she became ‘la Dona’, spending her time ‘managing the estate, bearing her first child, handling her increasingly unstable husband, and living for seven years amongst la gente, an illiterate, feudal people’, who are tithed to the estate.  She writes of the way in which, despite her improvements of the estate for those who lived there, she was not accepted by the community until she had a child of her own, evidence of bonding ‘physically with the clan I had married into.’

As de Teran finds it, the hacienda ‘was a place without any clear dimensions: a frontierless tract of land steeped in history.  When I asked what it was, I was always told it was in the Andes, never anywhere specific, just “en los Andes”, as though this mythical hacienda were the heart, the living core of a great mountain range.’  As the months pass, de Teran feels rather overwhelmed with the many ways in which her life has changed, and the different pace of life she finds: ‘Time, it seemed, had warped on the hacienda and spun its web over all its sons and daughters.  It spun its web over me.’

De Teran makes it clear that her expectations of Venezuela were not met when she first arrived in Caracas.  She writes: ‘I suppose I was expecting everything to fit the descriptions of a sugar plantation.  The big, modern, bustling Americanised city of concrete highrises came as a total shock.  Where was the jungle?  Where were the snakes?…  I felt completely disorientated.  I began to imagine the hacienda as a place of concrete bowers wreathed in tropical flowers.  I had braced myself to live in the wilds, instead I found myself in a place obsessed by the spending and display of wealth.’

Despite the many elements of interest which can be found within the pages of The Hacienda, I did not find it anywhere near as engaging as I was expecting to.  De Teran has included many letters written to her mother throughout, which seem to have been slotted in at random, and which interrupt and take attention away from the threads of story that weave through the whole.  I found The Hacienda to be both disjointed and distanced; it felt as though de Teran was constantly keeping things at arm’s length, and distorting scenes.  The strengths within the memoir were certainly the expressions of Venezuelan customs, the sometimes colossal cultural differences which de Teran identifies, and the impacts of the country’s violent and tumultuous history.  Quite scant information is given about the social and political climate in Venezuela, however; much of the information here is focused solely upon the hacienda, with little consideration of the country as a whole.

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2018 Travel: Books Set in France

My final stop so far in 2018 is France, where I am currently enjoying the Easter holidays (thank goodness for scheduling posts ahead of time!).  Here are seven books set in France which I have loved, and which, I feel, round off the week nicely.
5894091. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (2004)
Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.  When Irène Némirovsky began working on Suite Française, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.
2. The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart (2007)
Barber Guillaume Ladoucette has always enjoyed great success in his tiny village in southwestern France, catering to the tonsorial needs of Amour-sur-Belle’s thirty-three inhabitants. But times have changed. His customers have grown older—and balder. Suddenly there is no longer a call for Guillaume’s particular services, and he is forced to make a drastic career change. Since love and companionship are necessary commodities at any age, he becomes Amour-sur-Belle’s official matchmaker and intends to unite hearts as ably as he once cut hair. But alas, Guillaume is not nearly as accomplished an agent of amour, as the disastrous results of his initial attempts amply prove, especially when it comes to arranging his own romantic future.
3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2006) 6238269
A moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.  We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.   Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.  Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
4. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse (2009)
Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.

158618055. My Life in France by Julia Child (2006)
In her own words, here is the story of Julia Child’s years in France, where she fell in love with French food and found her “true calling.” Filled with the black-and-white photographs that her husband Paul loved to take when he was not battling bureaucrats, as well as family snapshots, this memoir is laced with stories about the French character, particularly in the world of food, and the way of life that Julia embraced so whole-heartedly. Above all, she reveals the kind of spirit and determination, the sheer love of cooking, and the drive to share that with her fellow Americans that made her the extraordinary success she became.

6. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (2007; review here)
Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.
7. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) 1183167
Bonjour Tristesse scandalised 1950’s France with its portrayal of teenager Cécile, a heroine who rejects conventional notions of love, marriage and family to choose her own sexual freedom.  Cécile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, sand and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy.

 

Which of these have you read, and which have taken your fancy?

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2018 Travel: Books Set in Austria

I have been incredibly lucky with my travelling so far this year, and was able to revisit beautiful Austria whilst based in Munich.  I hadn’t been to Salzburg before, but am absolutely in love with the city.  To honour lovely Austria, here are seven of my favourite books set in the country.

1. Let Me Go by Helga Schneider (2001) 1522423
The extraordinary memoir, praised across Europe, of a daughter’s final encounter with her mother, a former SS guard at Auschwitz.  In 1941, in Berlin, Helga Schneider’s mother abandoned her, her younger brother, and her father. Thirty years later– when she saw her mother again for the first time– Schneider discovered the shocking reason: Her mother had joined the Nazi SS and had become a guard in concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück, where she was in charge of a “correction” unit and responsible for untold acts of torture.  Nearly three more decades would pass before their second and final reunion, an emotional encounter at a Vienna nursing home, where her mother, then eighty-seven and unrepentant about her past, was ailing. Let Me Go is an extraordinary account of that meeting. Their conversation– which Schneider recounts in spellbinding detail– triggers childhood memories, and she weaves these into her account, powerfully evoking the misery of Nazi and postwar Berlin. Yet it is her internal struggle– a daughter’s sense of obligation colliding with the inescapable horror of what her mother has done– that will stay with readers long after the book has ended.
2. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi (2001)
‘In Persepolis, heralded by the Los Angeles Times as ‘one of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day,’ Marjane Satrapi dazzled us with her heartrending memoir-in-comic-strips about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Here is the continuation of her fascinating story. In 1984, Marjane flees fundamentalism and the war with Iraq to begin a new life in Vienna. Once there, she faces the trials of adolescence far from her friends and family, and while she soon carves out a place for herself among a group of fellow outsiders, she continues to struggle for a sense of belonging.  Finding that she misses her home more than she can stand, Marjane returns to Iran after graduation. Her difficult homecoming forces her to confront the changes both she and her country have undergone in her absence and her shame at what she perceives as her failure in Austria. Marjane allows her past to weigh heavily on her until she finds some like-minded friends, falls in love, and begins studying art at a university. However, the repression and state-sanctioned chauvinism eventually lead her to question whether she can have a future in Iran.  As funny and poignant as its predecessor, Persepolis 2 is another clear-eyed and searing condemnation of the human cost of fundamentalism.’

175696223. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (2013 in English)
The Exiles Return is set in Occupied Vienna in 1954-5. It describes five people who grew up there before the war and have come back to see if they can re-establish the life they have lost.  The novel begins with Professor Kuno Adler, who is Jewish and fled Vienna after the Anschluss (the events of March 1938 when Hitler’s troops marched into Austria). He is returning from New York to try and take up his old life as a research scientist. We realise through his confrontation with officialdom and with the changed fabric of the city (the lime trees are there no longer, it is hard to know who behaved well during the war and who was a Nazi sympathiser) that a refugee who goes back has a very difficult time.  Next we are introduced to a wealthy Greek named Kanakis. Before the war his family had lived in great style with a coach and horses and many servants, and now the 40 year-old Kanakis has come back to try and buy an eighteenth-century hotel particulier, a little palais, in which to live a life of eighteenth-century pleasure. He meets Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach (who owes more than a little to Tadzio in Death in Venice). Bimbo, as he is known – and the nickname is an accurate one – is a 24 year-old who, because his aristocratic, anti- Nazi parents were murdered by the Germans, was spirited away to the country during the war years and afterwards. He is penniless yet retains an overweening sense of entitlement. Kanakis and he develop a homosexual relationship (a brave thing to write about in the 1950s) and he is kept by his older lover. But he has a sister, Princess Nina, who works in a laboratory, the same one to which Adler returns. She lives modestly in the attic of her family’s former palais, is a devout Catholic, loyal to her brother and the memory of her parents, intelligent and hard-working, but, as she perceives it, is stocky and unattractive. Lastly, there is 18 year-old Marie-Theres, whose parents went to America just before the war; they, and her siblings, have become completely American, but Resi (as she is known, possibly with a deliberate echo of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew) has never fitted in and is déplacée. So she goes back to her Austrian aunt and uncle to see if she can make a life in the home country (from her parents point of view to see if she can be married off) yet here too she is an innocent abroad, unable, to put down roots. Her tragedy is at the core of this moving and evocative book, which explores a very complex and interesting question: if an exile returns, how should he or she behave morally? Some have moral fastidiousness (Adler, Nina), some are ruthlessly on the make (Kanakis, Bimbo), some have no moral code because they have never been educated to acquire one (Resi).
4. Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)
When Vanessa March arrived in Vienna she knew all about the white Lipizzan stallions at the Spanish Riding School. But she never expected to get involved with them or, indeed, with suspected murder.
5. Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1872) 17738894
When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle home in Styria, Austria, Laura and her father agree to take in its injured passenger, a young woman named Carmilla. Delighted to have some company of her own age, Laura is instantly drawn to Carmilla. But as their friendship grows, Carmilla’s countenance changes and she becomes increasingly secretive and volatile. As Carmilla’s moods shift and change, Laura starts to become ill, experiencing fiendish nightmares, her health deteriorating night after night. It is not until she and her father, increasingly concerned for Laura’s well-being, set out on a trip to discover more about the mysterious Carmilla that the terrifying truth reveals itself.
6. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (1929)
Rainer Rilke is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language. The letters in this book were written by Rilke to Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old student at the Military Academy of Vienna. Discouraged by the prospect of military life, Kappus began to send his poetry to the 27-year-old Rilke, seeking both literary criticism and career advice. After Rilke’s death, Kappus assembled and published the letters.  Although the first letter from Kappus asked for critiques of his poetry, Rilke gave him very little during their correspondence. He also discouraged Kappus from reading criticism, advising him to trust his inner judgment. Instead, the majority of the letters address personal issues that Kappus revealed to Rilke; their span is tremendous, ranging from atheism, loneliness, sexuality, and career choices.
61319957. The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (1982)
The post-office girl is Christine, who looks after her ailing mother and toils in a provincial Austrian post office in the years just after the Great War. One afternoon, as she is dozing among the official forms and stamps, a telegraph arrives addressed to her. It is from her rich aunt, who lives in America.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, have you added to your list?

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