A Month of Reading – August 2020

Since August was WITMonth, my original plan was to focus only on WIT books and to read as many as possible. That didn’t quite work out. I did read 4 WIT novels from Poland, Denmark China and Germany, which I ultimately felt was not too bad. And I also threw in a Ross Macdonald and the latest novel from Daisy Johnson.  

So here’s a brief summary of all that I read in August 2020…

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk (tr. from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

Set in a Polish village in deep midwinter, Drive Your Plow has the makings of a murder mystery when throughout the novel various men at regular intervals are found dead under mysterious circumstances. Our narrator, Janina, finds herself to be the first at these scenes of crime a couple of times, and she has her own theory on these murders, which she persistently presents to the police but to no avail.

Janina is viewed as a cankerous old woman in the village, not to be taken seriously. An engineer turned school teacher, she is also the caretaker of some holiday properties of owners who come to stay during the summer months. Janina clearly loves animals (possibly more than humans) and has strong opinions on hunting and animal brutality and non-vegetarianism. She also is a deep believer in astrology looking for answers in stars and cosmic planets to make sense of the chaos around her. And in her free time, she keeps herself busy translating poems of William Blake.

Drive Your Plow is no ordinary ‘whodunnit’, that’s really not the point of the book. Peppered with doses of black humour as well as melancholia, this book has existential overtones as it poses questions on our place in the universe, and challenges notions that humans are superior to animals. Strange and unique, with fascinatingly named characters (Oddball, Big Foot, Dizzy), and a fierce, eccentric personality in Janina, Drive Your Plow was a strong start for WITMonth.

Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang (tr. from Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury)

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things. She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.

The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun (tr. from German by Kathie von Ankum)

The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to.

After being fired from a dull office job and followed by a failed attempt at theatre in her mid-sized hometown, Doris makes her way to the big city – Berlin.

While she is dazzled at first by the city’s charms, she gradually drifts into homelessness and her reduced circumstances compel her to rely on men for money and company.

In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, seen through the eyes of an unforgettable protagonist.

Wild Swims – Dorthe Nors (tr. from Danish by Misha Hoekstra)

I had been meaning to read Dorthe Nors for quite a while now, ever since her first collection of stories Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space was released a few years ago (a book I had purchased then but is now languishing somewhere on the shelves).

I delved right into her latest collection Wild Swims instead. The themes of loneliness and human connection are central to these stories, but they are also brief character sketches encapsulated in certain moments with an element of darkness running through them.  

In ‘In a Deer Stand’, man in his late forties, finds himself miles away from home on a deserted dirt track, wet and frozen. Hampered by an injured ankle, he thinks desolately of his wife and the toxic nature of their marriage.

In ‘By Sydvest Station’, two girls who are going around houses collecting charity from people for a cause, encounter an old woman living in considerable poverty and distress. While one of the girls is quite disturbed by the incident, it barely ruffles the other who is more preoccupied with a relationship gone sour.

In ‘Our Narrow Paved Paths’, Alice is super busy taking care of a friend – Einar – who is suffering from cancer and expected to die anytime, although by the end you get a feeling that its Alice who possibly needs support as she is wracked by a feeling of emptiness.

In a disturbing story called ‘Honeysuckle’, a medical student studying at the NYU meets a blind Hasidic woman with whom he frequently has sex. It is during these moments that her face truly comes alive when at other times she is described as ‘a pale blotch in the midsummer night’.

All in all, there are fourteen stories in this collection and despite their brevity, it’s the sharpness in them that makes quite an impression.

Sisters – Daisy Johnson

Sisters is the second novel I have read this year where the relationship between two sisters is the focal point (the first was the marvelous We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson).

September and July are born ten months apart but are almost inseparable. When the book opens, the girls (in their late teens) have just moved to Settle House in the remote Yorkshire moors with their mother. A certain ‘incident’ at school is alluded to – the primary reason for the house move – though not revealed to us (that will come later on).

As sisters, September and July could not have been more different. September is the dominant personality, she is assertive, willful, fiercely protective of July but also prone to bouts of cruelty. July, on the other hand, is always in September’s shadow, doing what her elder sister tells her to do, although there are moments where she yearns to have an independent identity.

Their mother, Sheela, is an author of children’s books but prone to bouts of depression after a failed marriage, her ex-husband having died since then. She loves her daughters but is also unsettled by their closeness. The sisters are in some sense self-sufficient in their own private world, a world from which Sheela is excluded. This greatly disturbs her, although she feels powerless to do anything about it.

The relationship between September and July is complex suffused with love but also extreme possessiveness and manipulation. So entwined are the two sisters, it almost feels like there is a merging of identities into one (September insists that rather than have separate birthdays, the sisters celebrate it on a single day). However, for a considerable part of the novel, particularly after the ‘incident’, July becomes increasingly unsure of their bond, and where they stand in relation to the other. She is loyal for the most part but also wants to break away from September.

All these elements pretty much set the tone of the novel right from the start – there’s a creeping sense of dread that pervades it. Daisy Johnson is great at creating atmosphere, there’s a gothic fairytale feel to the story, where the house is as much as a character in its own right as the mother and her two daughters. Throughout the book the narrative voice shifts from July’s first person to a third person from Sheela’s point of view offering us a glimpse into their shifting mental states.

Ultimately, Sisters is a very-well written novel, which besides the overarching theme of the unconventional rapport between two sisters also takes a look the intricacy and delicate balance of the mother-daughter bond.

The Zebra-Striped Hearse – Ross Macdonald

I always turn to Ross Macdonald when I am going through a bit of a reading slump and he never disappoints. I am gradually making my way through his Lew Archer novels in the order of publication and The Zebra-Striped Hearse is the tenth in the series.

The novel begins when Archer is paid a visit by a client – Colonel Blackwell – who wants Archer to find dirt on a certain Burke Damis who is set to marry Blackwell’s daughter Harriet. Blackwell is a man prone to quick flashes of temper and his attempts to dissuade Harriet from marrying Davis are in vain. Archer for his part realizes that although Harriet is besotted by Davis, he is anything but.

A deeper examination into Damis’ background leads to a trail of murders which takes Archer to San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and Guadalajara in Mexico as he tries to get a sense of Damis’ personality.

The Zebra-Striped Hearse is another excellent addition to the Lew Archer oeuvre with a solid plot, a keen insight into the nature of family and how the past always comes back to haunt the present.  

So, that’s it for August. It was a solid month of reading with not a single dud among them. My favourites, though, were the Chang, Keun and Johnson.

The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Inspired by the example of Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), Keun set out to write the German answer to the bestselling novel from the US (a book I haven’t yet read). That’s how The Artificial Silk Girl was born, first published in the early 1930s in Germany at a time when the Nazis were in power. Not surprisingly, this book, along with many of Keun’s writings, was banned at the time.

The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to.

Our narrator and protagonist is the feisty Doris residing in a mid-size town in Germany with her parents. When the book opens, Doris finds herself stuck in a staid, stifling job with a legal firm, which requires her to insert commas in the appropriate places in letters. Not only does she not enjoy this role, she is not particularly good at it, something she tries to make up for by flirting with her boss. But it’s a job that pays even if half of her salary goes to her domineering father who wastes it away.

Inevitably, Doris loses her job but through her mother’s connections manages to find an opening in the glittering world of theatre. Theatre life is full of politics and backbiting but Doris is street-smart and carves a place for herself by falsely letting on that she’s in a relationship with the director. Subsequently, a competition with the other girls for a one-line part in the play ensues. Doris bags the part, although she is eventually fired when her lies are exposed. She steals a fur coat from the dressing room and makes her way to the big city, Berlin.

In those first heady days, Doris is dazzled by the grandeur and splendor of Berlin.

Berlin is so wonderful. I would like to be a Berliner and belong here. The Resi, which is behind Blumenstrasse, isn’t a restaurant really. It’s all colors and whirling lights, it’s a beer belly that’s all lit up, it’s a tremendous piece of art. You can find that sort of thing only in Berlin. You have to picture everything in red and shimmery, more and more and more, and incredibly sophisticated.

She has ambitions of becoming a movie star and leading a glittering life filled with glamour and romance. There’s one section where Doris is in conversation with her blind neighbour Brenner with whom she’s possibly having an affair, which is particularly fascinating in the way Doris describes the vibrancy of Berlin. For Brenner, Doris is his eyes for a view of the big city. To his recurring question, “What did you see?”, Doris embarks on a stream of consciousness style narrative that depicts Berlin in a series of dazzling images following one after the other.

“I see – swirling lights with lightbulbs right next to each other – women without veils with hair blown into their faces. That’s the new hairstyle – it’s called ‘wind-blown’ – and the corners of their mouths are like actresses before they take on a big role and black furs and fancy gowns underneath – and shiny eyes – and they are either a black drama or a blonde cinema.

But it dawns on her that the reality is quite different, made all the more apparent when she takes Brenner out for a night on the town. Wandering through the streets and visiting cafes and restaurants, Doris desperately aims to convince herself and Brenner that Berlin has the power to entice and seduce with its myriad diversions.

I just want him to like my Berlin.

But what is visible instead is the grimness of urban life and a sense of existential angst, which seeps through the core of their beings, disillusioning them both. Doris begins to experience these harsher realities in everyday life as well as she struggles to find a place to stay and call home and has to rely on men for money and some company. The only thing she can hold onto is her fur coat which gives her not only warmth but also a sense of self.

In The Artificial Silk Girl, Irmgard Keun has painted a memorable character in Doris, who is both naïve and streetwise at the same time. While Doris somehow has the guts to navigate the tougher side of Berlin, she harbours romantic illusions of making it big as a movie star, dreams that do not come to fruition.

The latter half of the novel particularly takes on a darker undertone, the bleakness of which is blunted to some extent by Doris’ unique and breezy voice. I could not help but think of Jean Rhys’ novels when reading the last section. In a way, while depending on the company of men for money and warmth, Doris bears a lot of resemblance to Rhys’ heroines in Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. And yet, I couldn’t help but think that despite the similar circumstances, the heroine in Keun’s novel is not as defeated as in Rhys’.

But it’s a good thing that I’m unhappy, because if you’re happy you don’t get ahead.

In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, transmitted to us by an unforgettable protagonist.

You Would Have Missed Me – Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. by Jamie Bulloch)

You Would Have Missed Me is the second book in Peirene Press’ 2019 series ‘There Be Monsters.’ It’s also the first time they are publishing another book of the same author – Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast was published in 2014 to critical acclaim and was considered for many prizes. And I am happy to sat this novella was another strong offering not only from the author but also from Peirene.

You Would Have Missed Me

You Would Have Missed Me takes place in a single day and our narrator is a little girl, who has turned seven. This is what she tells us in the opening pages…

We were standing in our two-bedroom flat in the Promised Land and once gain it was clear that I wouldn’t be getting a cat for my birthday.

The Promised Land is West Germany in the 1960s, when the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was at its peak.

Along with her parents, the girl manages to flee the East German refugee camp where they were living for a while to finally land in West Germany with hopes of a better life and standard of living.

Gradually, as the novella progresses, we are given a glimpse of the narrator’s life, her tenuous relationship with her mother, and the toxic relationship between her parents.

The girl’s mother is a woman who is chronically disappointed with everything around her. In the opening pages, the mother who always dreamed of having teak furniture, still finds something to complain about even when that dream comes true.

We only really spent time in the lounge when there was something to watch on television or if it was a special occasion. It was stuffed with teak furniture, as much as it could fit inside the room. Both my father and my mother now said it had been a mistake to furnish the lounge with teak because teak needed to be polished all the time to keep it shiny.

Before she came to the West, my mother always dreamed of teak furniture, but of course she didn’t know you had to polish teak all the time because she’d only ever dreamed of it and had never owned any.

This disappointment and many others pervades at various points in the novella. Indeed, the mother comes from a wealthy family, and moving to the West was something that she always wanted. And yet when that reality comes into fruition, the mother continues to remain a disappointed woman, always stating so and dropping hints to her husband of her wealthy fiancé earlier (and killed in the war).

The father, meanwhile, does not really care much for the Promised Land and has no patience with his wife’s continuous complaints. It essentially means that the atmosphere at home is not really healthy and the girl grows up isolated.

When we were in the refugee camp my father didn’t live with us to begin with because he wanted to finish his studies in East Berlin and have time to think about whether he’d rather take a job in the East than join us in the West. He studied, had loads of girlfriends, like all students, and went to Western cinemas, which meant it took him a while to decide, and so in the meantime we were in the camp without him…

Vanderbeke’s writing style in this one is quite similar to that in The Mussel Feast – the prose forms loops and is circuitous and repetitive in nature. This actually heightens the impact of the narrative propelling it forward and makes for an invigorating read even when the subject matter is dark and the environment claustrophobic.

But it’s not all bleak. There is a glimmer of hope in the form of a globe our narrator receives as a birthday present, a reminder of happier times in the East and of possibilities in the future. Plus, she also begins to find her own voice…

Ever since I’d heard my voice, I’d been saying things I’d never have dared say before.

And only a few pages later…

Then we had supper. I didn’t forget to wash my hands, but when we were sitting at the table I said that I wasn’t hungry.

Of course you’re going to eat something, my mother said.

I heard the voice. It was slightly deeper than mine and very calm.

Like hell you will, it said.

Ultimately, You Would Have Missed Me asks us what really makes a home. Also, does an escape from a place of conflict to a freer land always guarantee a better life?

Through the eyes of our narrator, we realize that while the Promised Land has offered materialistic comforts not possible in a refugee camp, the girl was happier when they were living in East Germany. The critical factor here is relationships. In the refugee camp, she had her grandmother whose cooking she relished or Uncle Grewatsch, Uncle Winkelmann and Auntie Eka, who entranced her with nuggets of knowledge. None of which is now accessible to her in the Promised Land where the toxic and abusive relationship between her parents continue.

The broader idea of what constitutes a home is also very theme in today’s times in context of the refugee crisis we have been seeing. Those refugees who against all odds find their way into a freer Europe can’t really be sure that they will lead a more fulfilling life. There are challenges of assimilating into a completely foreign culture and adapting to a different way of life. There are economic considerations. And there are possibly those who were happier staying in their own country but were compelled by cruel circumstances to just abandon their homes and flee.

Overall, You Would Have Missed Me is an absorbing novella, although I would still rate The Mussel Feast higher.

 

All For Nothing – Walter Kempowski (tr. Anthea Bell)

All for Nothing was published in 2006 and was the last novel by Walter Kempowski, an author considered to be one of postwar Germany’s most acclaimed writers.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction in my NYRB Classics edition:

Kempowski used autobiographical material in his work from the very beginning of his literary career, believing his own experience might be a source of historical understanding.

Kempowski was fifteen years old when the Soviets began advancing toward East Prussia and desperate German refugees looked to escape on ships departing from the East Prussian coast. His father was killed in battle during the final days of the war. In 1948, in East Germany, Kempowski, his brother and their mother were arrested for espionage.

All for Nothing

All for Nothing is set in the winter of 1945 in East Prussia at a time when the Soviets are advancing upon Germany.

A German defeat is imminent and yet the war serves as a backdrop; it is the inhabitants of the Georgenhof estate – the von Globig family – who form the focal point of the novel.

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.

The husband Eberhad is away, in Italy, but rumoured to be in a cushy job rather than fighting on the front line. Occasionally, he sends exotic wine, chocolates, tobacco which his wife Katharina stows away at the estate in a cubbyhole.

Katharina, meanwhile, is shown to be a placid beauty, always in a world of her own. She prefers to spend her time in the couple’s private apartment in the estate and read her books.

Anyone who ever spoke to Katharina found her a total blank. She had never heard of anything at all, she hadn’t even guessed at it. ‘She hasn’t the faintest idea,’ people said of her, ‘but she’s beautiful…very beautiful.’ She was the most striking person present at any social gathering, although she hardly ever said a word.

What else could you say about her? She shut herself up in her own rooms, and heaven only knew what she did there. She read a lot, or rather she made her way through a great many mediocre books.

Their twelve-year-old son Peter, is mostly left to his own devices. He is spared from joining the Hitler Youth because of a tonsil problem.

Katharina never spent a long time standing beside the boy. She left him alone, just as she herself liked to be.

The only practical member of the Georgenhof estate is Auntie, ‘a sinewy old spinster with a wart on her chin.’ She keeps the estate running and takes a hands-on-approach to situations. She is in charge of the Ukrainian maids in the kitchen – Sonya and Vera – as well as Vladimir, the Pole, who helps around in the estate.

Since Eberhard had become a special officer ‘in the field’, she made sure everything went smoothly at the Georgenhof. Nothing would have functioned without her. ‘Nothing’s easy,’ she would say, and with that attitude she ran the whole show.

The von Globigs largely appear to be cut off from reality. Their only way of getting a grasp of what is happening out in the world is through the myriad of people who pass through the estate. These are people seeking temporary refuge for a day or two, but always on their way to somewhere else.

These people are more in touch with the realities of the war. So they are surprised that a place like Georgenhof even exists; a place offering them wholesome food and drink and warm hospitality.

At the beginning there is a political economist who finds his way into the estate and is surprised at the luxurious existence of the von Globigs.

Silver? Fine china? The political economist was astonished to find all these precious things still in use, not hidden away long ago, or sent to Berlin or somewhere else. ‘Suppose the Russians come?’ And with all those foreigners just down the road.

Afterwards, many others halt at Georgenhof – a Nazi violinist, a dissident painter, a Baltic Baron, and so on.

Then there’s Drygalksi, a staunch Nazi, who distrusts the motives of the von Globigs believing that they need to be brought down a peg or two.

As the advance of the Soviets seems more real than ever, there is a growing sense of uncertainty in Georgenhof – should they adopt a wait and watch policy, or should they pack their belongings and be on their way?

Meanwhile, moments of the past insinuate upon the present at least where Katharina is concerned. Not involving herself in the present day to day affairs, Katharina’s thoughts keep shifting back to the past. A trip to a seaside town with Lothar Sarkander (mayor of Mitkau) when Eberhad is away in Berlin, is especially a recurring recollection and gives the impression that Katharina is unhappy in her marriage. We are also given a glimpse of Katharina’s daughter Elsie, who dies of yellow fever two years ago. But her room is kept intact the way it was.

While Katharina appears largely passive and content with her own privacy and thoughts, at a pivotal moment in the novel she is asked to undertake a task at the insistence of Pastor Brahms; a task that fills her with a daring sense of adventure. Even then, Katharina is clueless about the implications of what she has agreed to do.

At the same time, a persistent rumbling in the background only highlights the inevitability of the Soviets approaching. A slew of people with carts and trucks packed with belongings begin to flee towards the West. As the urgency mounts, the von Globigs cannot stay in isolation for long and are compelled into action.

At around 350 pages, Kempowski takes his time in fleshing out the characters and building up the drama and tension. There is a rhythmic, fable-like quality to his story telling that accentuates the solitary world of the von Globigs. Like the chorus in a piece of music, certain points are often repeated for greater effect throughout the novel. As the harsh realities of Soviet occupation force their way into the private lives of the von Globigs, Kempowsi chalks out their fates with compassion and grace.

All for Nothing then is an elegy to a lost world, a world that has disintegrated upon the intrusion of war. The last many chapters are particularly poignant as they highlight the difficulties that ordinary people face when the treat of enemy occupation is imminent – the nostalgia for a way of life that is surely lost, the extreme anxiety of being displaced, of fleeing, of leaving things behind, of venturing into the unknown.  Could it ever be the same again?

The first cartloads of old people arrived from Mitkau. They were being evacuated from the monastery. The old people were transported in open horse-drawn carts, sitting on straw [packed well round them. They were nodding their heads, as if in time to cheerful tunes played on a concertina. They had never thought they would have to go on the road again in their old age…

This was an excellent and absorbing novel. Highly recommended!

The New Yorker has published an interesting piece on this book and Walter Kempowski’s life here.