2

‘A Hero of Our Time’ by Mikhail Lermontov ****

Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which was first published in 1839, was my choice for the Georgia stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  According to its translator Paul Foote, it ranks as ‘one of the earliest of the great Russian novels.’  It was written towards the end of Lermontov’s very short literary career, killed as he was in a duel at the age of 26, and was published just two years before his death.

Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, the tongue-in-cheek ‘hero’ of the novel ‘was offered to the public not as a model but as a condemnation of the period.  Restless, cynical, disillusioned, sometimes cruel, he shares with many nineteenth-century Russian heroes a sense of superfluousness.’  Foote goes on to give some historical context to Pechorin’s – and Lermontov’s – world: ‘The period in which he wrote – the 1830s – was an important transitional step in Russian literature, when verse surrendered its pre-eminence to the story and the novel, and the great age of Russian literature began.’  Interestingly, Lermontov’s career ‘ran parallel’ to Pushkin’s, with both poets turning to prose towards the end of their writing lives.9780140447958

A Hero of Our Time is made up of five separate short stories, which have not been chronologically ordered; they give a series of episodes, essentially, in which elements of Pechorin’s life are shown to the reader.  Three of these are journal entries of Pechorin’s, but we learn more of his character from those which are narrated by others, and tell of his exploits.  Of Lermontov’s protagonist, Foote believes: ‘The only comfort Pechorin has is his conviction of his own perfect knowledge and mastery of life.  He despises emotions and prides himself on the supremacy of his intellect over his feelings.’  He is, however, Foote goes on to say, ‘more than a mere social type.  He is also a psychological type, the dual character, in conflict with himself, torn between good and evil, between idealism and cynicism, between a full-blooded desire to live and a negation of all that life has to offer.’  Foote also believes that Pechorin is a highly autobiographical portrait of Lermontov himself, who exhibited many of the same traits as his ‘hero’.

Lermontov’s descriptions are as dramatic as they are resplendent; when he writes about Georgia, for instance: ‘What a glorious place that valley is!  Inaccessible mountains on all sides, red-hued cliffs hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane-trees, yellow precipices streaked with rivulets; high up above lies the golden fringe of the snow, while below the silver thread of the Aragva – linked with some nameless torrent that roams out of a black, mist-filled gorge – stretches glistening like a scaly snake.’

A Hero of Our Time is the first example of the psychological novel in Russia; whilst it is perhaps not ‘psychological’ in the same extent as we would expect nowadays, there are many examples to be found in which Pechorin deliberately manipulates those around him, largely for his own gain.  At the time in which he was writing, there was no established tradition of Russian prose; rather, this was one of the first books of its kind, and as Lermontov had no rules to follow, he can be credited as one of the first masters of the Russian novel.  There is much here to admire.  The translation feels seamless, and reads fluidly.  Pechorin is a complex, mysterious, and deplorable character, who feels markedly realistic.  A Hero of Our Time is rather a quick read, particularly when compared to other Russian classics, but is both interesting and memorable.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Advertisements
1

‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus ****

I have wanted to read Albert Camus’ The Plague for such a long time, and was pleased that I was able to select it for the Algeria stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I have really enjoyed what I have read of Camus’ work in the past, and tried my best to ignore the reviews which mentioned how gory, vivid, and disturbing this novel was, squeamish as I am.  Of course, I expected a novel about a plague to have some level of gore within it; how could it not?  Several paragraphs were stomach-turning, but actually, the clever storyline and the intelligent writing shone through, and were at no time overshadowed by drama or melodrama.

The Plague is set in a fictional Algerian town named Oran, a French port on the coast, and takes place sometime in the early 1940s.   It was first published in 1947, with initial English translation coming out just a year later.  Camus immediately sets the scene, making Oran appear vivid, if dull: ‘Really, all that was to be conveyed was the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it…  Treeless, glamourless, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there.’9780141185132

Dr Rieux, who is introduced at the beginning of the second chapter, is a composed and determined individual, one of those who tries ‘to fight the terror’, remaining in Oran to stop the spread of the plague, and to treat those who are infected.  Camus sets the tone, as well as Dr Rieux’s composure and determination, when he writes: ‘A monstrous evil has entered their lives but they will never surrender.  They will resist the plague.’

As with Camus’ other work, the pace within The Plague is just right, and I was gripped immediately.  There is such a sense of atmosphere throughout, and Camus is always aware of the human aspect.  To use a striking example, when the town is put under quarantine, Camus describes the way in which the people who are trapped within the walls all change over time: ‘Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.  This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility.  For instance, some of our fellow-citizens became subject to a furious kind of servitude, which put them at the mercy of the sun and the rain.  Looking at them, you had an impression that for the first time in their lives they were becoming, as some would say, weather-conscious.  A burst of sunshine was enough to make them seem delighted with the world, while rainy days gave a dark cast to their faces and their mood.  A few weeks before they had been free of this absurd subservience to the weather, because they had not to face life alone…  But from now on it was different; they seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices, in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally.’

Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Plague feels entirely fluid.  The hopelessness which comes of living under such conditions, particularly for an extended period of time, has been both well wrought and evoked: ‘But actually it would have been truer to say that by this time, mid-August, the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone.  No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared of all.’  Every element of plague hitting such a populated area seems to have been well thought out; there is consequently a sort of realism to the novel, which makes it feel downright unsettling in places.  I was reminded rather of John Wyndham’s work whilst reading the highly thought-provoking The Plague.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

‘Kamchatka’ by Marcelo Figueras ****

Marcelo Figueras’ Kamchatka, which is set in Argentina, was the final South American book of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Kamchatka, which has been translated from its original Spanish by Frank Wynne, is a coming of age story which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Kamchatka was a novel which I have never seen reviewed on blogs or Goodreads, and was so intrigued by the storyline that I did not consider any other books set in Argentina for my challenge.  It seems to have slipped beneath the radar somewhat.  Regardless, there are many positive reviews which adorn the paperback copy of the novel.  In her review in The Times, for instance, Kate Saunders says that ‘Figueras writes with power and insight about the ways in which a child uses imagination to make sense of a terrifying and baffling reality.’  The Financial Times call it ‘brilliantly observed’ and ‘heartbreaking’.

9780802170873Kamchatka follows ten-year-old Harry, whose name is a false one he has to adopt after his family are forced to flee, calling himself after Harry Houdini, an obsession of his.  Harry, whose world is made up of make-believe and superheroes, lives in Buenos Aires during the 1976 coup d’etat.  His father leaves the family – Harry, his mother, and his younger brother, who calls himself Simon – at a petrol station on the outskirts of the city: ‘He kissed me, his stubble scratching my cheek, then climbed into the Citroen.  The car moved off along the undulating ribbon of road, a green bubble bobbing into view with every hill, getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see it any more.  I stood there for a long while, my game of Risk tucked under my arm.  Until my abuelo, my grandpa, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let’s go home.”‘

Figueras uses short chapters to tell Harry’s story, and this structure works well.  We are given a myriad of memories, which are not ordered chronologically, but which help to build a full picture, both of our protagonist and the conditions in which he is living under.

Kamchatka is often profound, particularly in those instances where Figueras discusses our growth as people in the most beautiful and thoughtful ways: ‘Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other.  That my past and my present together determine my future sounds like a fundamental truth, but I suspect that my future joins forces with the present to do the same thing to my past.’  Figueras also talks at length about childhood, and the way in which young people view what is around them, and what they are familiar with, as the entire world: ‘When you’re a kid, the world can be bounded in a nutshell.  In geographical terms, a child’s universe is a space that comprises home, school and – possibly – the neighbourhood where your cousins or your grandparents live.  In my case, the universe sat comfortably within a small area of Flores that ran from the junction of Bayoca and Arellaneda (my house), to the Plaza Flores (my school).’

Figueras has a wonderful way of being able to interpret different occurrences, particularly with regard to the political unrest in Argentina, through a child’s eyes: ‘When the coup d’etat came, in 1976, a few days before school started, I knew straight away that things were going to get ugly.  The new president had a peaked cap and a huge moustache; you could tel from his face that he was a bad guy.’  Kamchatka is a rich and thought-provoking novel, which offers an interesting and fully-developed perspective on one of the most defining periods of recent history in Argentina.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘The Ice Palace’ by Tarjei Vesaas *****

I have wanted to read Tarjei Vesaas’ work for years, and as soon as I began his novel, The Ice Palace, I knew that I was in for an absolute treat.  It is one of those rare books which I have heard only praise for.  Doris Lessing hits the nail on the head in her review of The Ice Palace; she writes: ‘How simple this novel is.  How subtle.  How strong.  How unlike any other.  It is unique.  It is unforgettable.  It is extraordinary.’  The Times is also effusive in its praise, writing: ‘It is hard to do justice to The Ice Palace…  The narrative is urgent, the descriptions relentlessly beautiful, the meaning as powerful as the ice piling up on the lake.’  Its own blurb compares it to an Ingmar Bergman film, for its ‘sombre and Scandinavian’ feel.

Vesaas won Norway’s most prestigious literary award, the Nordic Council Prize, for this novel.  Elizabeth Rokkan’s English translation feels flawless in the Penguin edition which cover-jpg-rendition-460-707I read.  The Ice Palace is set in Vesaas’ homeland of rural northern Norway.  Eleven-year-old Unn, one of our protagonists, has just moved in with her aunt.  She ‘strikes up an unlikely friendship at school with a boisterous classmate, Siss, and an unusual bond develops between them.’

The pair barely speak at school, but Siss walks to Unn’s one evening, and the girls confess their feelings for one another.  Both recognise the intimacy forming between them, but are unsure as to how to be with one another following the revelation.  They do not understand the intensity which they feel, or how to control it.  Unn feels unable to face her friend the following day.  At this time, Vesaas writes: ‘Tomorrow it would be different, but not just now.  She could not look into Siss’s eyes today.  She thought no further; the idea took hold of her with compelling force.’  Instead of trudging through the winter darkness to school, she takes a lone trip to the ice palace, which has formed beneath a local waterfall.

Vesaas immediately demonstrates the bleak but startling beautiful setting: ‘It was really only afternoon, but already dark.  A hard frost in late autumn.  Stars, but no moon, and no snow to give a glimmer of light – so the darkness was thick, in spite of the stars.  On each side was the forest, deathly still, with everything that might be alive and shivering in there at that moment.’  Despite its bleakness, The Ice Palace is filled with some quite charming details.  When Unn first reaches the lake near to the ice palace, for example, Vesaas writes: ‘The ground was made up of heather and tussocks of grass and, like everything else, shone silver with rime in the slanting sunlight.  Unn jumped from tussock to tussock in this fairyland.  Inside her satchel her books and sandwich box jumped up and down too.’

Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace.  His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful.  When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes.  Soft curves and confused tracery.  All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually.  Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms.  Everything shone.’  From her vantage point at the bottom of the iced waterfall, Unn is made aware of the sheer scale of the ice palace: ‘From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky; they grew as she thought about them.  She was intoxicated.  The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say.  The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.’

The Ice Palace, which was first published in Norway in 1963, is described as having ‘prose of a lyrical economy that ranks among the most memorable achievements of modern literature’.  I have to agree; rarely have I read a novel as fragile and beautiful as this one.  Vesaas is introspective and understanding when exploring the impact which Unn’s disappearance has on both her loved ones, and on the community as a whole.  The sense of place which Vesaas and his characters live within sprang to life before my very eyes, and has left me longing to visit Norway again.  The Ice Palace is immensely beguiling; it is a breathtaking and heartbreaking novel, which I would urge all of those who enjoy literary fiction to read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ by Mathias Malzieu **

I expected that Mathias Malzieu’s novel of magical realism, The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, would be both quirky and charming, and full of whimsy.  It is described as ‘a dark and tender fairytale spiced with devilish humour.’  I have had the novel on my to-read list for years, and was very excited when my slim hardback copy arrived.  However, my overwhelming feeling about the novel is one of disappointment.

9780701183691The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart has been translated from its original French by Sarah Ardizzone, and opens in Edinburgh in 1874.  A baby named Jack is born to a very young mother, and is found to have a frozen heart.  He is given an operation, in which the unconventional Dr Madeleine ‘surgically implants a cuckoo clock into his chest.’  The novel’s first sentences set the initial tone, although they do give a feeling of fairytale and wonder, which is not carried through the entire book: ‘Firstly: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart.  Secondly: master your anger.  Thirdly: never, ever fall in love.  For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.’

The novel is narrated by Jack, and follows his infatuation with an Andalusian girl made of fire: ‘Almost without realising it, I’m falling in love.  Except I do realise it too.  Inside my clock, it’s the hottest day on earth.’  Dr Madeleine, who becomes his guardian after his mother abandons him, worries that love will be a dangerous experience, and that his heart will be quite unable to take the strain.  She tells him: ‘Your cuckoo-clock heart will explode.  I was the one who grafted that clock on to you, and I have a perfect understanding of its limits.  It might survive the intensity of pleasure, and beyond.  But it is not robust enough to endure the torment of love.’  Jack’s narrative voice rarely feels authentic when he is supposed to be a child, and there is little change within it as he reaches adulthood.  There is next to no character development within the novel, which is a real shame.

The initial descriptions which Malzieu gives of Edinburgh are highly sensuous: ‘Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed.  Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice.  The old river, normally so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea.’  Other descriptions too verge upon the breathtaking: ‘… the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodies.  The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts, yawning at the moon…’.  Whilst the descriptions of both place and people are by turns lively and inventive, it did not seem to me as though the rest of Malzieu’s writing quite stood up.  It is when the narrative moves from Scotland to Spain that such descriptions start to suffer; they become relatively few and far between, and feel a little repetitive in what they pinpoint and express.

On initially viewing the dustjacket’s design and reading the blurb, I would have thought that The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart would be a suitable book for a child to read.  It seems not, however; there are several marked references to sex, and some quite coarse language at times too.  One of the fundamental flaws of the novel for me was that it did not appear to know exactly what it wanted to be, and there was too much going on at some points, and not enough at others.  It felt inconsistent, and did not hold my interest once its initial few chapters had passed.  I had qualms with the modern feel of the dialogue, which did not fit with the chosen time period at all; the historical detail was also rather patchy, and there are a few clumsy mistakes to be found for the eagle-eyed reader.

There are certainly some interesting ideas at play here, and I particularly admired the inclusion of Georges Melies, a real-life figure whose playful short films I love.  It did not quite come together in my opinion, however, and felt markedly peculiar.  It was difficult to immerse myself within the story, and it certainly loses momentum at points due to its inconsistent pacing.  The fairytale elements which are emphasised within the book’s blurb are relatively non-existent.  The translation was fluid, but regardless, I ended up disliking more about the novel than I liked.  The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is what I imagine literary steampunk would be like; of marked interest to the right reader, but not really of appeal to this one.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August’ by Oliver Hilmes ****

9781847924346I love books with concepts such as Oliver Hilmes’ Berlin 1936, where an entire event – in this case, the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Berlin – is charted using not just official figures and statistics, but with the inclusion of ordinary people who witnessed part of it. Hilmes has put this particular book together using a diverse range of diaries and letters, along with historical information about the weather on each given day, and surprising figures, such as the amount of food in kilograms eaten within the Olympic Park.

The spectators included in Hilmes’ account are as diverse as the Chair of the International Olympic Committee, composer Richard Strauss’ wife Pauline, the American author Tom Wolfe, and Austria’s Ambassador to Germany. There are also extracts from the diaries of high-ranking Nazi officers, and Jewish people who were already beginning to see what an enormous threat Hitler was to their freedom. One of the real strengths in Berlin 1936 is the way in which Hilmes demonstrates how ordinary lives play out against the pomp and circumstance of the Olympic spectacle, which is just as fraught with social problems as the city of Berlin itself.

Berlin 1936 is a fascinating piece of social history, with a direct focus that never fades from Hilmes’ commentary. The narrative which the author has created works very well, and he seems to effortlessly tie the numerous different occurrences and opinions together. The structure too, which is given on a chronological day-to-day basis, is splendid. Berlin 1936 is engaging and well researched, and builds wonderfully as it goes on.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Doppler’ by Erlend Loe ****

In Loe’s native country of Norway, Doppler, which was first published in 2004, has sold over 100,000 copies, and the author is seen as something of a Scandinavian bestseller – for good reason. This novel is described as ‘a charming, absurd and cleverly subversive fable… about consumerism, existence… and a baby elk called Bongo’. An intriguing premise, certainly. So what is Doppler all about? 9781781851050

It tells the story of Andreas Doppler, a citizen of Oslo, who has recently lost his father and is about to become a parent himself for the third time. At the outset of the novel, Doppler states his current status in rather a matter of fact way: ‘My father is dead. And yesterday I took the life of an elk’. He goes on to say: ‘well, how can I put it, after I moved into the forest, for that is actually what happened, that’s what I do, I live in the forest’.

This move into the forest came as something of a shock for Doppler’s family. After a cycling accident, in which he tells us ‘I fell. Quite badly’, he is happy to find that his mind is finally void of all of the trivial everyday thoughts which once filled it, ranging from theme songs of his young son’s favourite television shows to the kinds of tiles he and his wife should buy for their bathroom. In jolly naivety, he believes that his wife, teenage daughter and young son Gregus will be better off without him. Doppler as a character is straight to the point and certainly knows his own mind. His prose is often blunt: ‘I don’t wish to meet people. They disgust me’. Something about this brutal honesty and the no-holds-barred approach to the events which pepper the text is endearing.

The baby elk, Bongo, comes into the story after Doppler kills his mother, and is soon the main focus of the man’s attentions. At first this feeling is one of loathing: ‘That bloody elk. If it comes back, I’ll split its skull open’, but it soon turns to understanding: ‘It’s all alone and it’s beginning to realise the world is a harsh place, and it cannot see any future or meaning in anything. Of course, it’s immature of it to take out its frustration on me, but what else can you expect? After all, it’s only a child’. Just one page after this occurs, their friendship is cemented: ‘We slept together in the tent that night. The calf supplied a surprising amount of heat. I used it as a pillow for most of the night, and when I woke up this morning, we lay looking at each other in a close, intimate way that I had seldom experienced with people’. He soon comes to think that he has actually done the elk a favour by separating it from its mother, stating: ‘… and by the way, I continued after a short pause, your mother would soon have brutally broken the ties between you two in any case. She would have shoved you away from her and told you to push off…. You lot seem so good-natured, but you treat your kids like shit’. During these one-sided conversations, the elk – and the reader – becomes Doppler’s confidante, seeming to listen patiently to his every outburst and pearl of wisdom.

The narrative style which Loe has crafted throughout Doppler takes us right inside the head of our protagonist. He talks directly to us as though he trusts us with his every secret, and this creates a kind of camaraderie between the reader and character almost immediately. The prose style does not follow general conventions, and there are often commas where full stops should be, but therein lies the beauty of the book. The narrative is quite philosophical in places, and is filled with complex ideas which mingle with Doppler’s wilderness existence in interesting ways.

Don Shaw and Don Bartlett have provided a wonderful translation of the text, which I am sure rings true of the original. Sadly, there are quite a few editorial mistakes throughout the book; this does not detract from the wonderfully engrossing story, but it is a real shame.

The book as an object is lovely – a cream hardback with dark red endpapers and lovely red and white illustrations adorning the slipcover. The story is lovely too – witty, satirical, humorous and even quite touching in places. We meet Doppler’s friends as he himself does, and it feels as though we are right there beside him on his grand adventure.

Purchase from The Book Depository