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Reading the World: ‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum’ by Heinrich Boll **

Heinrich Boll, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is an author whom I’d heard rather a lot about but had never read.  I decided to rectify this by picking up perhaps his most famous novel in English translation, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.  The Sunday Telegraph deems it a ‘novel of compassion and irony’, and The Times writes of the way in which ‘Boll sustains a masterly and insidious tension to the end.  He is detached, angry and totally in control’.  It sounded wonderfully unsettling, particularly when one takes into account the fact that its subtitle is ‘or how violence develops and where it can lead’, and I was rather excited to get started with it.

9780749398989Katharina Blum, our twenty seven-year-old protagonist, is at the ‘centre of a big city scandal’ when, at a party, she ‘falls in love with a young radical on the run from the police.  Portrayed by the city’s leading newspaper as a whore, a communist and an atheist, she becomes the target of anonymous phone calls and sexual threats’.  This drives her to shoot the offending journalist, before giving herself up for arrest.  ‘Step by step, and with an affecting forensic identity, Katharina’s story is reconstructed for the reader, gradually disclosing an entire panorama of human relationship and motive.  The novel is a masterful comment on the law and the press, the labyrinth of social truth and the relentless collusion of fact and fiction’.

The structure works well, in that the whole has been split into very short numbered sections; it is intended to read as something akin to a police report.  I am fine with novels being written in the format of a report, provided that it is done well.  Here, though, I was a little put off by the way in which many of the sections are really rather dull, and have very few redeemable or memorable qualities to them.  Sadly, these lacklustre sections were far more frequent than ones which I found of interest.  The story tends to get bogged down with tiny details.  Whilst it is fascinating, and often scary, to see how the media can affect a life, the real impact here for me came when I related the events of Katharina’s story to the ‘fake news’ scandal which has been going on for longer than we would perhaps like to believe.  The development of the characters in The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was rather slipshod; perhaps this is because we, the readers, learn about the protagonist only through the biased viewpoint of the police.  I certainly lost interest at times, and debated whether to even finish reading the piece.

Unfortunately, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum did next to nothing for me.  The detachment was so acute that I could feel no sympathy for Katharina, and felt merely like an isolated observer.  Its translator has done a good job in rendering it into English, and the phrasing reads well whilst being rather dated; however, I simply found the book too matter-of-fact, and not entirely well paced.  Widely regarded as a German classic, I wonder if I am missing something fundamental with regard to The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.  I suppose it is fair to say that whilst I liked the general idea of the book, I had rather a few qualms with its execution, and can therefore rate it no higher than two mediocre stars.

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Reading the World: ‘Strait is the Gate’ by Andre Gide *****

Strait is the Gate is, for some reason, the first of Andre Gide’s books which I have read, despite his having been on my radar for years.  I had written his name upon the list of authors whom I hoped to get to during 2017, and also thought that he would be a great inclusion upon my Reading the World list.  First published in France in 1909, and in Dorothy Bussy’s 1924 translation, I could not pass up the chance of adding yet another marvellous classic of French literature to my list.

Strait is the Gate also seemed a wonderful place to start, being, as it is, the first novel by the Nobel Prize for Literature winner of 1947, and one of his best works in English; indeed, its blurb states that is is ‘… regarded by many as the most perfect piece of writing which Gide ever achieved.  In its simplicity, its craftsmanship, its limpidity of style, and its power to stimulate the mind and the emotions at one and the same time, it set a standard for the short novel which has not yet been excelled’.

9780141185248Strait is the Gate is a ‘story of young love blighted and turned to tragedy by the sense of religious dedication in the beloved’.  The novella’s opening paragraph is relayed in one of my favourite styles: ‘Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one which took all my strength to live and over which I spent all my virtue.  So I shall set down my recollections quite simply, and if in places they are ragged I shall have recourse to no invention, and neither patch nor connect them; any effort I might make to dress them up would take away the last pleasure I hope to gt in telling them’.  All of Gide’s writing holds this strength, and his descriptions in particular are absolutely beautiful, and often quite startling.  Of the house of an uncle, our narrator, Jerome, says thus: ‘Certain others [windows] have flaws in the glass which our parents used to call “bubbles”; a tree seen through them becomes distorted; when the postman passes he suddenly develops a hump’.  He describes his aunt, Lucile, whilst she is playing the piano: ‘… sometimes she would break off in the middle of a bar and pause, suspended motionless on a chord’.

After the death of both of his parents, young Jerome becomes infatuated with his cousin, Alissa, with whom he spends every summer at her family’s secluded house in Le Havre.  ‘No doubt,’ he says, ‘like all boys of fourteen, I was still unformed and pliable, but my love for Alissa soon urged me further and more deliberately along the road on which I had started’.  Alissa’s younger sister, Juliette, fast becomes a go-between for the pair: ‘She was the messenger…  I talked to her interminably of our love, and she never seemed tired of listening.  I told her what I dared not tell Alissa, with whom excess of love made me constrained and shy.  Alissa seemed to lend herself to this child’s play and to be delighted that I should talk so happily to her sister, ignoring or feigning to ignore that in reality we talked only of her’.

Religion was not so much of an aspect here as the blurb makes out; rather, it is more of a familial novel, and a wonderfully wrought one at that.  Interesting family politics are at play throughout.  Letters which Gide writes from the perspective of others in Jerome’s family feel entirely authentic; he has captured such nuanced elements of voice, and renders each distinctive.  His prose is packed with emotion, which grows as the work progresses.

Bussy’s translation is seamless; there is such a marvellous elasticity to the writing, and the whole has been rendered beautifully.  Strait is the Gate is a truly beautiful work, and a novella which I was immediately immersed within.  Whilst it is my first taste of Gide’s work, it certainly will not be my last.  I can fast see him becoming one of my favourite authors, in fact.

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Reading the World: ‘Water for Chocolate’ and ‘The Door’ (From the Archive)

9780552995870Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel ****

Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s bestselling debut novel was translated from the Spanish, and I found my copy for just £1 outside Books for Amnesty on a trip to Brighton.  I don’t usually read romance novels of any kind, but I remembered that I had written this book in my very first ‘to-read’ notebook when I first began it at the age of sixteen, and added it to my pile immediately.  I also feel that I need to read more South American fiction, as I have sadly not really got past my dislike of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and feel that it has put me off from exploring the continent’s literature further.  Starting with something which was relatively mainstream in that case felt like a good way in which to ease myself in.

Like Water for Chocolate begins in rather an interesting way, with the unusual birth of one of the main protagonists, Tita.  This is triggered by her hatred of onions: ‘Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves and coriander, steamed milk, garlic and, of course, onion.’  Her story continues from this point onwards, and she grows along with the novel.  I very much enjoyed the inclusion of recipes throughout the novel, and the way in which it has been split into chapters which correspond to different months.  Like Water for Chocolate is incredibly engrossing, and Esquivel weaves her tale wonderfully.  The elements of magical realism were both quirky and bizarre, and worked marvellously with the plot which she fashioned.

The Door by Magda Szabo *** 9780099470281
I believe that this is the first novel translated from Hungarian which I have read.  On the whole, I found The Door intriguing and a little unsettling, but my comments about it are rather mixed.  In this novel, Szabo tells the story of a couple – the wife an author and the husband too unwell almost all the way through the book to work – and how Emerence, a cleaner in the small district in which they live, comes into their lives.

My favourite element of the story was the way in which Emerence had been constructed.  She was an incredibly enigmatic character, particularly at first.  In some ways, however, she seems to be the only three-dimensional inclusion in the entire book.  It feels as though far more thought has gone into her construction than into anything else.  The unnamed narrator felt rather flat, and I was constantly irritated by her self-pity.  I found her ‘I know best’ and ‘woe is me’ attitudes rather grating.  Her husband, also unnamed, was a mere shadow.

The Door is extremely narrative driven.  It often reads like a monologue of sorts, and whilst this technique was rather absorbing during the novel’s beginning, the plot did become rather saturated in consequence.  I found the animal cruelty throughout rather difficult to read.  The translation sadly feels rather disjointed, particularly during the longer sentences.  I feel that The Door would have been far more powerful and enjoyable had it been a novella.

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Reading the World: ‘With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia’ by Asne Seierstad ***

With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia was the only one of Norwegian author Asne Seierstad’s works of extended journalism which I had outstanding.  I have found her work insightful and far-reaching in the past, and I admire the way in which she tries to present as many viewpoints as she possibly can.  The real triumph for me is Seierstad’s newest publication, One of Us (review here), which deals with Anders Breivik, who carried out atrocious terror attacks in Norway in 2011.  I felt that it would be a nice change to include a work of non-fiction in my Reading the World Project, as I have certainly gravitated more towards works of fiction thus far.

In her second book, With Their Backs to the World, Seierstad details ‘the lives of ordinary Serbs – under Milosevic, during the dramatic events leading up to his fall and finally in the troubled years that have followed’.  She follows those who fall across the entire political spectrum, from three visits which she made between 1999 and 2004.  After broadcasting about the Kosovan conflict in 1999 for NRK (Norway’s Broadcasting Corporation), she ‘couldn’t stop wondering about the Serbs, these outcasts of Europe.  This people that started one war after the other, and lost them all’. 9781844082148

In her research for With Their Backs to the World, Seierstad found that many people were reluctant to speak to her, accusing her of wanting to have her supposed ‘prejudices confirmed’, or saying that they could not formulate an understanding of what was happening even between themselves.  She eventually discovered thirteen individuals who were happy to speak to her, as well as one family, and interviewed them between the winter of 1999 and the spring of 2000.  Of her subjects, she writes: ‘These people together made up a picture, a mosaic of sorts’.

Translated from its original Norwegian by Sindre Kartvedt, With Their Backs to the World is quite often culturally fascinating.  Serbia is not anywhere that I’ve travelled to to date, but I would be interested to, particularly after understanding more of its turbulent history, and the way in which it is rising from the ashes.  With Their Backs to the World, in this sense, is both historically and culturally important.  The dialogue, however, is rather clumsy in places; whether this is a translation issue I am unsure, but some of the phrases simply did not sound right to my English ears.

One reviewer on Goodreads has commented that With Their Backs to the World focused on individual experiences at the expense of the wider picture.  I am of this opinion to an extent; Seierstad here seems to have veered toward looking at the effect rather than the cause.  The background of Serbia and its recent conflicts is covered in the introduction, but later information is not always detailed, which surprised me; I had, up until now, viewed Seierstad as a more meticulous journalist than she comes across here.  With Their Backs to the World was certainly more character driven than I was expecting, and the balance between characters and historical and geographical background does not sit quite right.

With Their Backs to the World is an interesting book in many ways, but I do not feel as though it is Seierstad’s strongest.  A slight niggle for me was that no information was included as to how the participants had been selected, and the practical details about the interviews – how were they conducted, how often, and in what language?  With Their Backs to the World was not as engrossing as I was expecting; indeed, it was a little disappointing in this respect.  There also seemed to be a real lack of emotion, which felt odd in the context of the whole.

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One From the Archive: ‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The eleven ‘dark’ stories in Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge were originally published in Japan in 1998, and have been translated into English by Stephen Snyder.  Ogawa, who has won every major Japanese Literary Award, has been compared to the likes of Haruki Murakami, and this collection has been heralded ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant’. 9780099553939

All of the tales in Revenge have been linked together, with settings and characters overlapping from one story to the next.  Strings of plot meander their way through the whole.  Similar themes are repeated too, which adds to the feeling of one coherent whole – ageing, death and dying, grief, despair, and adultery, for example.

Some of the stories are very sad – in ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, a woman purchases a strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday.  When asked how old he will be, she says, rather matter-of-factly, ‘Six.  He’ll always be six.  He’s dead’.  Others are merely creepy, and are filled with foreboding from the very start: a woman pulls up hand-shaped carrots from her vegetable patch, which have grown as a result of a sinister occurrence, and a woman’s revenge upon her lover when he refuses to leave his wife, for example.  Rather unusually, all of the stories are told using the first person perspective.  Ogawa focuses upon both male and female protagonists, and each narrative voice is as strong as another.

Ogawa’s work has been crafted and translated with such care.  Her descriptions are sometimes beautiful – for example, ‘The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight’.  She fills her tales with quite surprising details – the narrator of one story is invited along when a quiet classmate meets her father for the first time, and the pair do not speak again, an elderly landlady has surprising strength, and an abandoned post office is filled to the brim with kiwi fruits.  The stories in Revenge are odd, quirky and unusual, and are sure to linger in the mind for days afterwards.

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Reading the World: ‘Lavinia’ by George Sand ****

George Burnham Ives’ 1902 translation has been used in Michael Wallmer’s lovely edition of George Sand’s Lavinia.  Sand was an incredibly prolific author; her oeuvre is something which most writers can only dream of.  Her work spans four decades, being published as she was between 1831 and 1876.  Lavinia is one of her earliest books, in fact, and was first published in its original French in 1833.lavinia-front-cover_1_orig

After a young and rather well-to-do English traveller, Sir Lionel Bridgemont, abandons well-born Portuguese Lavinia Buenafe, he breaks her heart.  She consequently marries a nobleman, and is soon widowed.  Some time later, after asking Sir Lionel – himself just about to be married – to return the love letters which she sent him many moons ago, she finds that they are near one another in the Pyrenees.  They thus decide to meet, and along with their present-day story, elements of their past are revealed.

Lavinia’s cousin, Sir Henry, who has accompanied his friend Sir Lionel to the Pyrenees, adds some humour to the whole.  When Sir Lionel berates him for telling Lavinia that her letters were in his constant possession, he says: ‘”Good, Lionel, good!…  I like to see you in a fit of temper; it makes you poetic.  At such times, you are yourself a stream, a river of metaphors, a torrent of eloquence, a reservoir of allegories…”‘.  Sir Henry has rather an adoring, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, view of Lavinia, calling her: ‘”… as fresh as the flowers, lovely as the angels, lively as a bird, light-hearted, rosy, stylish, and coquettish…”‘.  Sir Lionel is really his antithesis, in speech at least, holding as he does a very conventional, if amusingly relayed, view of womankind: ‘”… In the opinion of every man of sense, a lawful wife should be a gentle and placid helpmeet, an Englishwoman to the very depths of her being, not very susceptible to love, incapable of jealousy, fond of sleep, and sufficiently addicted to the excessive use of black tea to keep her faculties in a conjugal state…”‘.

Lavinia is a slim novella at its modest 71 pages; perhaps deceptively so, as there is quite a lot of depth to it.  The descriptions are perhaps the real strength of the piece: ‘… the lovely valley, bathed in sparkling dew, floated in the light and formed a sheet of gold in a frame of black marble’.  Lavinia is beautifully written, and so well translated; it is a real treat to settle down for an hour or two with.  There are amusing asides which pepper the text, and make it feel far more contemporary than it is in actuality.  There is a wonderful pace to the novella, and the structure of one singular chapter works well with regard to its length.  Strong and thoughtful, Lavinia is perhaps most interesting when one looks at the shifting relationships and passing of time within it.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Misunderstanding’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

First published in September 2012.

Irène Némirovsky’s first novel, The Misunderstanding, was written when she was twenty one years old and published in a literary journal two years later in 1926. The book presents a ‘tragic satire of French society after the Great War’. The Misunderstanding has been newly published in English this year.

Denise Jessaint and Yves Harteloup are the protagonists in this novel, which is set in a small village named Hendaye in an ‘enchanting corner’ of the Basque region, as well as Paris, in 1924. Yves holidayed in the resort as a child, where he had savoured long, golden days, as delicious as ripe fruit’, and has returned in order to gain some respite from his stuffy office job in the city. He is in his thirties, ‘so weary, so lacklustre’ in appearance, ‘with that slight bitter grimace at the corner of his mouth’. He fought in the First World War and bears a scare from ‘his last wound – a shell that had exploded and almost killed him in Belgium’. Born to rich parents and raised on old money, he ‘grew up learning to love beautiful things and how to spend money, how to dress… how to regard women as the only worthwhile worldly possession’. Yves is disenchanted with his new working life, wishing to be carefree once again: ‘This young man, who for four years had been a kind of hero, was cowardly when faced with the daily grind, the need to work, the petty tyranny of existence’.

Quite by chance, he meets Denise on a beach, where she is playing with her young daughter, Francette. Denise is ‘beautiful, frank, direct’, with ‘the worrying nature and anxious imagination of a true mother’. Bored with her marriage to Jacques, who met Yves at a hospital in Belgium when both were wounded in the war, Denise is enthralled with Yves’ company, and they soon begin a relationship with one another.

The novel is rather a compact one, taking place in around a year, but this small timeframe only adds to the story. It is clear that Némirovsky’s has considered the impacts of such a relationship on both involved parties, and the way in which she writes about how their affair grows and then begins to dissipate is masterful. The turns of events which she has fashioned throughout are believable, and we learn about their affair and all that goes with it – secrecy, lies, misunderstandings, clandestine meetings, happiness and unhappiness.

‘As in many of her works,’ notes Sandra Smith, the translator of all of Irène Némirovsky’s novels into English, ‘Némirovsky closely examines an extra-marital affair… Even in this early novel, however, she is able to see both sides of the question and alternates between writing from the perspective of the man and the woman’. This is not an entirely true statement. Whilst Némirovsky does follow both Yves and Denise separately and then together, the third person omniscient perspective has been used throughout. Whilst we get to know the characters and the inclusion of their thoughts and feelings does allow us to perceive them as realistic, we never truly get inside their heads.

Sections of the dialogue throughout does feel a little disjointed at the beginning of the novel, and it consequently does not always read as a true-to-life conversation would. This does improve as the story progresses, however. The only real qualm in the story is the author’s portrayal of two-year-old Francette Jessaint. In some chapters, she acts as one of her age would be expected to – making pies out of sand and amusing herself through play – but in others she seems far too grown up. Some of the words and phrases which she utters are too advanced for her age group, and it seems that there is no real consistency with her character or dialogue.

Némirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful, as are her turns of phrase. Her prose style is wonderfully executed. She is incredibly perceptive of the world around her and builds up the relationship between Yves and Denise realistically. The Misunderstanding is a rich, multi-layered novel, which shows just how the past affects the present.

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