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The Book Trail: Wartime Memoirs

I am beginning this instalment of the Book Trail with a memoir I stumbled across, and have added right to the top of my TBR list.  As ever, I have used the tool on Goodreads entitled ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ to create this list.

1. Castles Burning: A Child’s Life in War by Magda Denes 514939
There are few figures in literature as riveting as the precocious nine-year-old Magda Denes who narrates this story. Her stubborn self-command and irrepressible awareness of the absurd make her in her mother’s eyes “impossibly sarcastic, bigmouthed, insolent, and far too smart” for her own good. When her family goes into hiding from the fascist Arrow-Cross, she is torn from the “castle” of intimacies shared with her adored and adoring older brother and plunged into a world of incomprehensible deprivation, separation, and loss. Her rage, and her ability to feel devastating sorrow and still to insist on life, will reach every reader at the core. Recounting an odyssey through the wreckage and homelessness of postwar Europe, Castles Burning embodies a powerful personality, a stunning gift for prose and storytelling, a remarkable sense of humor, and true emotional wisdom and makes a magnificent contribution to the literature of childhood and war.

 

2. Last Waltz in Vienna by George Clare
On February 26, 1938, 17-year-old Georg Klaar took his girlfriend Lisl to his first ball at the Konzerthaus. His family was proudly Austrian; they were also Jewish, and two weeks later came the German Anschluss. This incredibly affecting account of Nazi brutality towards the Jews includes a previously unpublished post-war letter from the author’s uncle to a friend who had escaped to Scotland. This moving epistle passes on the news of those who had survived and the many who had been arrested, deported, murdered, or left to die in concentration camps, and those who had been orphaned or lost their partners or children. It forms a devastating epilogue to what has been hailed as a classic of holocaust literature.

 

10430123. I Remember Nothing More: The Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance by Adina Blady-Szwajger
The author was a young Jewish doctor at the children’s hospital in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to 1942. When the hospital was forced to close the children that had survived were taken to the death-camps. Blady-Szwajger became a reluctant courier for the resistance. She left the ghetto and began to carry paper money pinned into her clothing to those in hiding. She and her flat-mate pretended to be good-time girls having fun and threw parties to disguise the coming and going of their male visitors. This heroic memoir pays tribute to all the men and women who paid with their lives for the safety of others.

 

4. Edith’s Story by Edith Velmans
When Hitler invaded Holland in 1939, Edith van Hessen was a popular Dutch high school student. She also happened to be Jewish. In the same month that Anne Frank’s family went into hiding, Edith was sent to live with a courageous Protestant family, took a new name, and survived by posing as a gentile. Ultimately one-third of the hidden Dutch Jews were discovered and murdered; most of Edith’s family perished.   Velmans’s memoir is based on her teenage diaries, wartime letters, and reflections as an adult survivor. In recounting wartime events and the details of her feelings as the war runs its course, Edith’s Story ultimately affirms life, love, and extraordinary courage.

 

5. The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt by 2211263Hannelore Brenner
From 1942 to 1944, twelve thousand children passed through the Theresienstadt internment camp, near Prague, on their way to Auschwitz. Only a few hundred of them survived the war. In The Girls of Room 28, ten of these children—mothers and grandmothers today in their seventies—tell us how they did it.  The Jews deported to Theresienstadt from countries all over Europe were aware of the fate that awaited them, and they decided that it was the young people who had the best chance to survive. Keeping these adolescents alive, keeping them whole in body, mind, and spirit, became the priority. They were housed separately, in dormitory-like barracks, where they had a greater chance of staying healthy and better access to food, and where counselors (young men and women who had been teachers and youth workers) created a disciplined environment despite the surrounding horrors. The counselors also made available to the young people the talents of an amazing array of world-class artists, musicians, and playwrights–European Jews who were also on their way to Auschwitz. Under their instruction, the children produced art, poetry, and music, and they performed in theatrical productions, most notably Brundibar, the legendary “children’s opera” that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.  In the mid-1990s, German journalist Hannelore Brenner met ten of these child survivors—women in their late-seventies today, who reunite every year at a resort in the Czech Republic. Weaving her interviews with the women together with excerpts from diaries that were kept secretly during the war and samples of the art, music, and poetry created at Theresienstadt, Brenner gives us an unprecedented picture of daily life there, and of the extraordinary strength, sacrifice, and indomitable will that combined—in the girls and in their caretakers—to make survival possible.

 

6. Playing for Time by Fania Fenelon
In 1943, Fania Fenelon was a Paris cabaret singer, a secret member of the Resistance, and a Jew. Captured by the Nazis, she was sent to Auschwitz where she became one of the legendary orchestra girls who used music to survive the Holocaust. This is her personal account of the experience.

 

12520997. The Story of a Life by Aharon Appelfeld
In spare, haunting, almost hallucinogenic prose, the internationally acclaimed, award-winning novelist shares with us–for the first time–the story of his own extraordinary survival and rebirth.  Aharon Appelfeld’s childhood ended when he was seven years old. The Nazis occupied Czernowitz in 1941, penned the Jews into a ghetto, and, a few months later, sent whoever had not been shot or starved to death on a forced march across the Ukraine to a labor camp. As men, women, and children fall away around them, Aharon and his father (his mother was killed in the early days of the occupation) miraculously survive, and Aharon, even more miraculously, escapes from the camp shortly after he arrives there.  The next few years of Aharon’s life are both harrowing and heartrending: he hides, alone, in the Ukrainian forests from peasants who are only too happy to turn Jewish children over to the Nazis; he has the presence of mind to pass himself off as an orphaned gentile when he emerges from the forest to seek work; and, at war’s end, he joins the stream of refugees as they cross Europe on their way to displaced persons’ camps that have been set up for the survivors. He observes the full range of personalities in the camps–exploitation exists side by side with compassion–until he manages to get on a ship bound for Palestine. Once there, Aharon attempts to build a new life while struggling to retain the barely remembered fragments of his old life (everyone urges him simply to forget what he had experienced), and he takes his first, tentative steps as a writer. As he begins to receive national attention, Aharon realizes his life’s calling: to bear witness to the unfathomable. In this unforgettable work of memory, Aharon Appelfeld offers personal glimpses into the experiences that resonate throughout his fiction.

 

8. Shanghai Diary by Ursula Bacon
By the late 1930s, Europe sat on the brink of a world war. As the holocaust approached, many Jewish families in Germany fled to one of the only open ports available to them: Shanghai. Once called “the armpit of the world,” Shanghai ultimately served as the last resort for tens of thousands of Jews desperate to escape Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Against this backdrop, 11-year-old Ursula Bacon and her family made the difficult 8,000-mile voyage to Shanghai, with its promise of safety. But instead of a storybook China, they found overcrowded streets teeming with peddlers, beggars, opium dens, and prostitutes. Amid these abysmal conditions, Ursula learned of her own resourcefulness and found within herself the fierce determination to survive.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which interest you?

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‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ by Svetlana Alexievich ****

Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘classic oral history’ The Unwomanly Face of War has recently been released in its first English version, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I was so excited to pick up a copy, fascinated as I am by Russian history and the Second World War, both of which Alexievich’s work encompasses.

During the Second World War, ‘about a million women fought in the Soviet army,’ Alexievich writes in her introduction.  ‘They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones.  A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words “tank driver,” “infantryman,” “machine gunner,” because women had never done that work.  The feminine forms were born there, in the war’.  Belarusian Alexievich then goes on to discuss her experiences growing up just after the war in Ukraine, when tragedy affected everyone: ‘We didn’t know a world without war; the world of war was the only one familiar to us, and the people of war were the only people we knew.’

Alexievich, 9780141983523an investigative journalist, wanted to write an account about women, and of their experiences in conflict.  Her reasoning and justification for writing The Unwomanly Face of War are strong.  She saw the existing reportage of wartime accounts flawed, due to their masculine leanings.  She writes: ‘There have been a thousand wars – small and big, known and unknown.  And still more has been written about them.  But… it was men writing about men – that much was clear at once.  Everything we know about war we know with “a man’s voice.”‘  She goes on to exemplify the highly varied experiences of women, and their often far more emotive accounts.  ‘”Women’s” war,’ she points out, ‘has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings.  Its own words.  There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.’

It was markedly important for Alexievich to speak to as many women as she could, and in consequence, she is able to share ‘stories of women’s experiences in World War II on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories.’  To collect the testimonies, she took ‘dozens of trips all over the country, hundreds of recorded cassettes, thousands of yards of tape.  Five hundred meetings, after which I stopped counting; faces left in my memory, only voices remained.  A chorus resounds in my memory.  An enormous chorus; sometimes the words almost cannot be heard, only the weeping.’  Accounts came from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.  She interviewed snipers, drivers, traffic controllers, liaison officers, nurses, paramedics, mechanics, telephone operators, pilots, and partisans, to create her multilayered portrait of women in war.

Alexievich is aware of the flaws to be found in any project of this kind, primarily the validity of what she is being told, as there is no way to verify individual accounts.  She says, ‘but the narrators are not only witnesses – least of all are they witnesses, they are actors and makers.  It is impossible to go right up to reality.  Between us and reality are our feelings.’  Her aim here is to portray the ‘sickening’ futility of war, and its far-reaching effects: ‘I write not about war, but about human beings in war.  I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings.  I am a historian of the soul.’

The Unwomanly Face of War, as far as it can be judged to be so, feels candid.  Both the accounts which have been transposed, and Muller’s intelligent and measured commentary, are expressive and immersive.  Whilst the accounts themselves are sometimes very matter-of-fact, and verge upon the simplistic with regard to their language, they are often horrific and difficult to read.  The Unwomanly Face of War is such an important historical document, touching and tender.  Alexievich has included fragments of so many stories which deserve to be told.

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‘Anne Frank: The Biography’ by Melissa Muller *****

I purchased a revised and expanded edition of Melissa Muller’s Anne Frank: The Biography on an affecting trip to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam last year.  I have been so looking forward to reading it, but for some reason – emotional turmoil over Anne’s story, I expect, which never fails to bring me to tears – it took me some time to pick it up.  The Sunday Telegraph deems Muller’s biography ‘sensitive, serious and scrupulous’, and the Independent believes it to be an ‘accurate and honest portrait’.  The New York Times writes that Anne Frank: The Biography ‘acts as a supplement to the diary, filling in Anne’s fragmentary view of her own life’.

9781408842102I have read Anne’s own diary – which has sold more than thirty million copies in over seventy languages to date – countless times, as well as rather a few books about her, but Anne Frank: The Biography has become one of my absolute favourites.  It has been translated from its original German by Rita and Robert Kimber.  In this updated edition, Muller ‘details new theories surrounding the family’s betrayal, revelations about the pressure put on their helpers by the Nazi party and the startling discovery that the Franks had applied for a visa to the US.’

In her foreword, Muller writes of Anne’s importance: ‘Over the past sixty years, Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of the oppressed in a world of violence and tyranny.  Her name invokes humanity, tolerance, human rights, and democracy; her image is the epitome of optimism and the will to live.’  Upon her initial reading of Anne’s diary, Muller had many questions which were left unanswered; this inspired her to research and write Anne Frank: The Biography.  At this point, she says, ‘my search began – initially in the 1990s – to search for the person behind the legend, a search for the incidents and events that shaped the life and personality of Annelies Marie Frank.’  Her aim, she goes on, ‘was to gather as many fragments of the mosaic as possible and create as authentic a picture of Anne’s brief life as I could, illuminating the familial and social circumstances that provided the foundation of her life and left their mark on it.’

Anne Frank: The Biography opens with a copy of the Frank and Hollander family trees, which become useful to refer to when grandparents and great-grandparents are introduced into the narrative.  The initial chapter of the book opens on a scene in August 1944.  This, at first, seems like an ordinary day in the annexe in which Anne and her family, along with others, are hiding, but it proves to be the day on which they are discovered by the Dutch Nazis.  After they have been taken away, Muller describes how Miep and Bep, office workers who helped them to hide, retrieve Anne’s diary, not reading a single page so as to protect her privacy.  They hoped to be able to give it back to her after the war.

The second chapter then begins with Anne’s birth in Frankfurt, where her family lived on the outskirts of the city.  Of their new arrival, the Franks ‘had worried that Margot might be jealous of the baby, but Margot laughed with delight when she saw her.  Anne’s ears stuck out comically, and her wild black hair was silky and soft.’  A chronological timeline is followed from this chapter onward, and we are able to chart Anne’s progress as she grows, and becomes more independent.  Particular attention is paid to the craft of Anne’s writing, wishing as she did to become a novelist when she grew up.  ‘Her style,’ Muller writes, ‘improved rapidly, with astonishing speed considering her age…  The more she wrote, the sharper her observations became and the clearer her expression of those observations; the keener, too, her understanding of others and – as if she could step outside herself and look back in – of herself as well.  What she had begun in adolescent dreaminess ultimately achieved, in many passages, a maturity that was as convincing as it was astonishing.’

Political and social occurrences, particularly those which relate to the restrictions placed upon Jewish people, run alongside the lives of the Frank family.  This social context has been provided throughout, and adds depth and understanding.  Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, for instance, Muller states: ‘In one day the social structure of Holland had been transformed.  Where once there had been rich and poor, an upper and a lower class, a right wing and a left wing, and various religious blocs, now only one criterion distinguished good from bad, friend from enemy: was a person anti-German or pro-German?’  Along with historical facts, Muller weaves in the interested and intelligent Anne’s own opinions.  Upon the surrender of the Netherlands, ‘Anne was outraged…  Surrender was a concept she was hearing about for the first time, and she didn’t like the sound of it.  It didn’t suit her character.’

Counter to its title, Anne Frank: The Biography is not simply a biographical account of Anne; it includes details of both her immediate and extended family members on both sides, as well as accounts of family friends, and her schoolmates.  Photographs have been dotted throughout, which adds to the narrative, and shows those around Anne, first in Germany, and then in Amsterdam, where her family moved when she was small.  Perhaps most moving in terms of these portraits is the impression we receive of her doting father, Otto.  When writing about Anne and Margot’s friends in Amsterdam, Muller says: ‘The greatest delight of all was Mr. Frank.  His wife was always there and always friendly, but the children hardly noticed her; they took such things for granted in mothers.  But Otto Frank, at almost six feet a tall man for those days, was special.  With Mr. Frank you could talk and joke about anything.  He made up games, told stories, always had a comforting word, and seemed to forgive Anne everything…  Otto’s high spirits were truly infectious.  And when he was at home he spent more time with his children than most other fathers did.’  Of course, Anne is always the central focus here, but more of an understanding of her character can be gained from seeing those around her.

Muller is so understanding of Anne’s character and qualities, and notes how great an effect being in the annexe had for her: ‘At a time when a young person is recalcitrant and restless, defiant and temperamental, full of questions and searching for answers, baffled, helpless, and often irritable, Anne had no outlets for her feelings, no way to let off steam…  Anne herself described the period from 1942 until well into 1943 as a difficult time.  In the long days of loneliness and despair and of conflict not only with her housemates but also and primarily with herself, Kitty and the diary became her closest confidants.’

Muller’s prose style makes Anne Frank: The Biography a very easy book to read; it is intelligent and measured, not to mention packed with detail, but it still feels readily accessible.  The biography is considerate and meticulously researched and, as one would expect, is both touching and harrowing throughout.  Anne Frank: The Biography is a moving and detailed tribute to a remarkable young woman, and works as the perfect companion to The Diary of a Young Girl.

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‘Charms for the Easy Life’ by Kaye Gibbons ****

I adored Kaye Gibbons Ellen Foster, and very much enjoyed Sights Unseen too.  Charms for the Easy Life, first published in 1993, is the author’s fourth novel.  Alice Hoffman, whose writing and stories I find have the same lovely intelligent but easygoing prose as Gibbons’, writes that the novel ‘is filled with lively humour, compassion and intimacy’.

Charms for the Easy Life tells the story of three generations of ‘fiery’ women, living without men: Charlie Kate Birch, a ‘self-proclaimed doctor who treats everything from leprosy to lovesickness with her roots and herbs’, her daughter Sophia, ‘who has inherited her mother’s wisdom and will and applies them to her desire to rule the world around her and land the man of her choice’, and granddaughter Margaret, ‘whose struggle towards adulthood is complicated by World War II’.  Margaret is the novel’s captivating narrator, and lives with her mother and grandmother in the ‘lush, green backwoods’ of North Carolina.9780060760250

As is usual with first person perspective-driven novels, we learn about the other characters through Margaret’s portrayal of them.  Charlie Kate, particularly, is strong and forward-thinking: ‘My grandmother was to be remembered for many achievements, from campaigning for in-school vaccinations to raising money to buy prosthetics for veterans of the world war, but in the Beale Street area of Raleigh she lives in the memory of an old few as the first woman anybody knew with the courage not only to possess a toilet but to use it.’  Sophia is more of a shadowy figure at times, largely absent from much of the prose.

The Birch family have historically been plagued by problems.  Their family has a remarkably high suicide rate, which is detailed in oddly beautiful prose in the first chapter.  Margaret tells us, of her remaining family members: ‘They threatened to kill themselves in the river all the time.  They used the threat in arguments with each other.  They said the words without thinking…  But they didn;t go in the river, because the river was life to them, life all surging and all crashing into white foam on river rocks they had known their whole lives, and the thought of throwing themselves into a familiar current and banging choked and goggle-eyed against rocks they had stood on and courted on and fished and dreamed on, and sat in the sun and dared to open their blouses and nurse their babies on, this was not something they could do.  They would walk fifty miles and jump in some other person’s river, but not their own.’  As is evident from this description, Gibbons creates such a vivid sense of place, and her writing feels continuously effortless.

The novel has been slotted so well into the looming threat of war; Gibbons startlingly describes conditions at the time, and is particularly involved with those lives lived without privilege, or in dire poverty.  Myriad details ground Charms for the Easy Life nicely into history, with references to popular culture, and mentions every now and again of wider conflict.  Gibbons also notes how important small changes, or transformations, in the world are to her protagonists, and how these changes translate into their own selves.  This is particularly poignant when she writes about ageing: ‘[Sophia] was showing signs of loneliness.  She had recently begun the process of resigning herself to the slide from beautiful lady to handsome older woman, adjusting her lipstick color from fire-engine red to brick, exchanging bright beads for pearls and stylish platform soles for pumps.  And by “process,” I mean just that: she had not fully committed her body to middle age yet.’

Thoughtful in its outlook, and with a fascinating and tender story about non-conformist women at its heart, Charms for the Easy Life is a novel which I would definitely recommend.  The relationships drawn here have so much complexity about them, and the story takes directions which I did not expect.  I shall close this review with a wonderful quote from the novel: ‘If my grandmother could’ve populated the world, all the people would’ve been women, and they all would’ve been just like her.’

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‘Mr Fox’ by Barbara Comyns ****

I love Comyns’ work, and try to pick up her novels whenever I place an online order, difficult as they seem to locate in physical bookshops.  Virago have reissued three of her books – The Vet’s DaughterSisters by a River, and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – in the last few years, and NYRB have just brought out a lovely edition of The Juniper Tree, but I have seen nothing about a republication of her 1987 novel, Mr Fox.  I therefore purchased a copy of it online, and was eager to begin.

Comyns’ penultimate novel, Mr Fox is set during the Second World War, and moves from London to some small, imagined towns and villages nearby.  At the outset of the novel, which is narrated in its entirety by Caroline Seymore, Mr Fox, a ‘spiv’, offers her and her young daughter, Jenny, assistance.  The pair were deserted by Jenny’s father, Oliver, whilst Caroline was still pregnant, as he felt that running off to Spain to fight against Franco was more important than providing for his family.  Mr Fox promises the Seymores ‘a roof over their heads, advice on evading creditors and a shared – ie. dubious – future.’  Mr Fox is ‘always full of new ideas about making money and was often very prosperous, but sometimes almost penniless.’  He takes on many schemes to make dishonest 7191026money, and is unable to keep any savings in the bank, due to the temptation of spending them.

The novel opens in the following manner, which wonderfully sets the tone for the whole: ‘The other people in the house where I lived didn’t like me.  I expect it was because I was living with a man I wasn’t married to.  We just had “Mr Fox and Mrs Caroline Seymore” written on the door that led to our flat.  There was a Miss Seymore living there, too, but she didn’t have her name on the door because she was only three years old.’  Adhering to social conventions is something which does not greatly bother Caroline; the welfare of herself and her daughter during wartime is her primary concern.  Of her marriage to Oliver, Caroline writes: ‘I don’t think it’s a frightfully good thing to do to marry poets.  My mother was very much against it, but she was rather a dreary kind of woman and I didn’t want to grow dreary too, so I left her and married Oliver, who was delightful and sparkling, and it was only afterwards I discovered he was shallow and spoilt and really rather affected, and his poetry was affected, too.’

Their existence with Mr Fox is often rather tumultuous.  Early on in the narrative, Caroline admits: ‘We often did things that made him [Mr Fox] displeased with us, but we had nowhere else to go, so we had to go on living with him.’  Once the air raids begin in earnest, she and Mr Fox decide to move out of London.  They find a ‘shoddy little house’ in the fictional town of Straws, near the factory where Mr Fox is able to get a job.  Caroline writes: ‘It wasn’t the war that depressed me so much but life at Straws.  It was the most dreary, lonely place in the world, and it made Mr Fox unbearable.  He became frightfully bad-tempered and nervy and had completely changed from the dashing kind of crook he used to be; leading an honest life didn’t suit him at all.’  Although she has been removed from the fear of being bombed, she feels increasingly trapped and frightened, with nowhere else to go, and no friends to speak to.  Despite her misfortunes, Caroline does not allow herself to become pessimistic: ‘In the back of my mind I was always sure that wonderful things were waiting for me, but I’d got to get through a lot of horrors first.’

The chatty style which Comyns employs works so well here; Caroline feels like a three-dimensional creation, always candid and often rather funny.  Comyns also gives one a real feel for the period as the threat of war, and later conflict itself, progresses: ‘But it wasn’t the same as the scare the previous year.  The war came nearer and nearer and there was no escaping it, you could almost see it coming like a great dust-storm.’  In Mr Fox, Comyns tells of a quite ordinary woman’s experiences during wartime, crafting rather a straightforward and sincere voice in which to do so.  Mr Fox is an immersive novel, and an unfairly neglected one too.  I’m crossing my fingers that a publisher will reprint it soon, so that it can be discovered by a whole new clutch of readers.

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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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Two Novellas About War: ‘The Sojourn’ and ‘Kaddish for an Unborn Child’

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak **
9781934137345I read Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn for the Slovakian component of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. It is a slim novel, set during the First World War, and following the story of a young man named Jozef, who decides to sign up and fight. I did find Krivak’s prose a little difficult to get into, as many of his sentences were unnecessarily long, and seemed to lose the initial thread on several occasions. The Sojourn is certainly a literary novel in terms of its prose, but at times it felt highly, and unnecessarily, overwritten. It was nowhere near as engaging as I was expecting it to be. There were many flaws with the protagonist too; at only two points in the entire novel did he have any compassion for his fellow man, seeming to view battle as a game, and calling those he murdered his ‘kills’. The Sojourn has clearly been well researched, but its characters are wholly one-dimensional, and there is very little of a character arc to speak of, despite the novel being a formative one. The Sojourn was definitely readable, but the entire human aspect, which I would have expected to be a major factor in the plot, seemed to be missing in action.

 

Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertesz **** 9780099548935
Previous to picking up Imre Kertesz’ Kaddish for an Unborn Child for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, I had read one of his novels, Liquidation, which I bought whilst in Budapest. As with Liquidation, this novella is a meditation on the Holocaust, and also features literary translator B. as its protagonist. In the highly autobiographical Kaddish for an Unborn Child, B. ‘addresses the child he couldn’t bear to bring into the world, [and] takes readers on a mesmerising, lyrical journey through his life, from his childhood to Auschwitz to his failed marriage.’

My high hopes for this novella were met; whilst it was rather difficult to read due to its terribly long and sometimes convoluted sentences, it proved to be one of the most powerful and haunting works on the Holocaust which I have yet read. The dense and complicated prose was sometimes exhausting to read, especially given its subject matter, but the stream-of-consciousness style fitted so well with the points which Kertesz brought to the fore. The core idea here is both beautiful and unsettling, and it is sure to linger in the mind for weeks after the final page has been read. The full concentration which you have to allow this novella is entirely worth the effort.

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Reading the World: ‘But You Did Not Come Back’ by Marceline Loridan-Ivens ****

In 1944, when she was just fifteen, Marceline Loridan-Ivens and her father were arrested in occupied France, and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  At the concentration camp, the pair were forcibly separated, and she was only able to speak to her father once more.  But You Did Not Come Back is a letter to the father whom ‘she would never know as an adult, to the man whose death has enveloped her life.  With poignant honesty, she tells him of the events that have continued to haunt her, of the collapse of their family, and of her efforts to find a place in a changing world’.  Le Parisien calls Loridan-Ivens’ memoir ‘one of the most beautiful books of the year’, and promise that ‘you will read it in one sitting’.  But You Did Not Come Back has been translated from its original French by Sandra Smith, who handles all of the Irene Nemirovsky translations.  It was first published in 2015, and in English last year.

9780571328024But You Did Not Come Back begins in the following way: ‘I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us. …  But I’m changing.  It isn’t bitterness, I’m not bitter.  It’s just as if I were already gone. …  I don’t belong here anymore.  Perhaps it’s an acceptance of death, or a lack of will.  I’m slowing down.’  She goes on to harrowingly describe the situation which she and her father were thrust into, and how their separation affected her: ‘Between us stood fields, prison blocks, watchtowers, barbed wire, crematoriums, and above all else, the unbearable certainty of what was happening to us all.  It was as if we were separated by thousands of kilometers.’

Loridan-Ivens meets her father once more, quite by chance when returning from a work detail.  When the pair embrace, she describes the following: ‘Our senses came alive again, the sense of touch, the feel of a body we loved.  That moment would cost us dearly, but for a few precious seconds, it interrupted the merciless script written for us all.’  The next day, she passes him again: ‘You were there, so close to me, very thin, wearing a baggy striped uniform, but still a magician, a man who could astonish me.’  She is just as honest about what being imprisoned in such a notorious concentration camp does to her, and those around her: ‘The first things we lost were the feelings of love and sensitivity.  You freeze inside so you don’t die.  There, you know very well how the spirit shrivels, the future lasts for five minutes, you lose who you are.’  Whilst detailing her experiences within the camp, Loridan-Ivens often writes using ‘we’ rather than ‘I’; through this narrative choice, she demonstrates just how many were in the same situation as her, and the collective feelings which were shared.  Her voice continually speaks to her father; she addresses questions to him, and aches to know his opinions.

Loridan-Ivens was eighty-six when she chose to write But You Did Not Come Back, and it is clear that doing so was a very painful experience.  She describes her isolation when the war ends and Bergen-Belsen, where she is transported to, is liberated; returning home, she finds that nobody but her father understood what she went through in the camps, and the majority of people around her forbid her to talk of her experiences.  She writes: ‘I wasn’t running away from ghosts, quite the contrary, I was chasing after them, after you.  Who else could I share anything with?’

But You Did Not Come Back is incredibly moving and poignant; it is as heartfelt as it is heartbreaking.  Just one hundred pages long, it can be read in a relatively short time, but its messages are unlikely to be forgotten.  Loridan-Ivens demonstrates in her beautiful and brave memoir, which has been seamlessly translated, that the bond between father and daughter can never truly be broken.

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‘If This is a Woman’ by Sarah Helm *****

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.

9780349120034Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

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One From the Archive: ‘Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis’ by Francelle Bradford White ****

After the German invasion of Paris in June 1940, Andree Griotteray ‘found herself living in an occupied city, forced to work alongside the invaders…  Her younger brother Alain set up his own resistance network to do whatever he could to defy the Nazis.  Andree risked her life to help him’.  Based on diaries written during the 1930s and 1940s and conversations which she held, and written largely as a response to the Alzheimer’s which now holds her in its grip, Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis has been lovingly penned by Andree’s daughter, Francelle Bradford White.  Here, White aims to tell us ‘her mother’s incredible story: the narrow escapes and moments of terror alongside a typical teenager’s concerns about food, fashion and boys’.

White’s account of her mother’s life begins with her being granted the Legion d’honneur in 1995, as a measure of her bravery during the Second World War.  She was also accordingly awarded the Medaille de la Resistance and the Croix de Guerre.  White then goes on to set out the history of her family, and the factors which she believes led her mother and uncle Alain to become leading figures in the realm of the French Resistance movement.  She discusses what life was like for a comfortable and relatively well-off family such as the Griotterays in France’s capital, placing particular emphasis upon the alterations which came ‘as tensions in the run-up to the Second World War’ manifested themselves: ‘Shopping, a choice of reasonably elegant clothes, a choice of books, non-censored press, attending university, things which today are taken for granted and which should have been theirs, were no longer possible’.  Andree’s own perceptions, along with interest in and experiences of certain elements of wartime life, can be seen throughout, from theatre and patriotism, to her colleagues at the Police Headquarters, refugees, and deportations.

Many of the diary entries are copied out exactly as they were written, and White speaks of the care which she has taken in  preserving her mother’s use of idioms and certain patterns in her speech during her own efforts at translation.  For instance, Andree’s entry for the 5th of August 1940 reads simply, ‘It is unbearably hot at the moment.  We are leading the most awful life’.

Throughout, footnotes add often vital historical background to the whole; they are both succinct and well penned.  Some also contain the author’s memories of particular items or incidences – of a marble bust passed down through the family from Andree’s father, for example.  Further background to her mother’s diary entries is given too; White sets the scene and continually asserts her mother’s life and decisions made against the backdrop of war.  Andree’s War is packed with such emotional depth.  On the 23rd of August 1940, for example, Andree writes the following: ‘Life is so sad.  It is impossible for a young French girl to be carefree and happy because the Germans are occupying most of my country.  Maybe it does not upset everyone in the same way, but for me to walk around Paris, my home town, to see Germans travelling around in cars and admiring the sights, is heart-breaking.  I do understand the government’s position in allowing them to march in, not wanting Paris to be bombed and destroyed, but it is very hard’.

Andree’s War holds interest throughout; the whole has been so well written, and the primary sources have been handled with such care.  The book is absolutely fascinating, particularly with regard to the extent as to which the eldest Griotteray siblings aided the Resistance.  Incredible feats of heroics show themselves, and the way in which the past story has been interspersed with more recent events, in which Andree’s efforts were both recognised and rewarded, works marvellously.  Andree’s War is a memorable read, and is certainly a wonderful addition to the canon of World War Two diaries, respectfully written about a young woman who ultimately believed in sacrificing herself and her own safety for the greater good.

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