thorold confronts the subtle thief of youth in Q1 23

Tämä viestiketju jatkuu täällä: thorold discovers no labour-saving machine in Q2 23.

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thorold confronts the subtle thief of youth in Q1 23

joulukuu 29, 2022, 7:04 am

How soon hath Time the subtle thief of youth
Stoln on his wing my three and twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth
That I to manhood am arriv'd so near,
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits indu'th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure ev'n
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav'n;
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great task Master's eye.

Milton, On Arriving at the Age of

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 31, 2022, 6:27 am

Welcome to my first 2023 Club Read thread!

For those who don’t know, I’m Mark, a retired international civil servant living in The Hague, in the Netherlands. I use these threads to chronicle my sometimes-excessive reading, with occasional diversions into music, hiking, trains, and other extracurricular activities.

You can find last year’s thread here:

The poem above isn’t really all that relevant (although the feeling of being robbed by time doesn’t go away as you get older), but it was the only “twenty-three” reference I could come up with, albeit at the end of year 23, not the start…

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 16, 5:35 am

Q4 Reading stats:

I finished 38 books in Q4 (Q3: 48, Q2: 72, Q1: 41).

Author gender: F: 11, M: 26 Other: 1 (68% M) (Q3: 81% M, Q2: 71% M, Q1: 70% M)

Language: EN 9, NL 7, DE 13, FR 9, ES 2 (23% EN) (Q3: 58% EN, Q2 53% EN) (Q1 47% EN)
Translations: none

Publication dates from 1850 to 2022; mean 1990, median 2012; 15 books were published in the last five years.

Formats: library 18, physical books from the TBR 10, physical books from the main shelves (re-reads) 0, audiobooks 5, paid ebooks 1, other free/borrowed 4 — 26% from the TBR (Q3: 31%, Q2: 42%, Q1: 66% from the TBR)

37 unique first authors (1.02 books/author; Q3: 1.17, Q2 1.07, Q1 1.3)

By gender: M 25, F 11, other 1 :68% M (Q3: 81% M, Q2: 70% M; Q1 78% M)
By main country: UK 5, NL 7, AT 2, FR 6, DE 9, US 3, and various singletons

TBR pile evolution:
01/01/2022: 93 books (77389 book-days) (change: 8 read, 12 added)
01/04/2022: 84 books (77762 book-days) (change: 31 read, 22 added)
01/07/2022: 86 books (58460 book-days, 680 d/b) (change: 30 read, 32 added)
01/10/2022: 84 books (59801 book-days, 712 d/b) (change: 15 read, 13 added)
01/01/2023: 88 books (67009 book-days, 761 d/b) (change: 10 read, 14 added)

It's definitely creeping up again! Obviously I read a lot of library books and didn't take much from the older end of the pile once again.

2022 Overview:

I finished 199 books in 2022 (181 in 2021), which is about normal for me

Author gender: F: 45, M: 149 Other: 5 (75% M)

Language: EN 97, NL 24, DE 44, FR 26, ES 7, IT 1 (49% EN)

Publication dates from 1810 to 2022; mean 1983

Formats: library 19, physical books from the TBR 86, physical books from the main shelves (re-reads) 7, audiobooks 27, paid ebooks 11, other free/borrowed 49 — 43% from the TBR

172 unique first authors (1.16 books/author)

By gender: M 25, F 11, other 1 :68% M (Q3: 81% M, Q2: 70% M; Q1 78% M)
By main country: UK 41, NL 23, AT 5, FR 17, DE 33, US 16, IE 4, etc.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 3, 4:39 am

As we go into the new year, I’m about halfway through the Deutscher Buchpreis winner Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969 by Frank Witzel, which is even longer than its own title. Despite it being very long and shaggy, I’m finding it a good book for a holiday read, so I’ll persist.

More generally, there seem to be a lot of interesting things coming up here on LT, most of which I’ve committed myself to or am keen to join in, so I’m sure something is going to have to give. Even if it is only the TBR pile…

— Over in RG, labfs39 is hosting the quarterly theme read on The Baltic. Lots of interesting things to follow up there, and at the very least it ties in with my wish to read more Kempowski.

— Lisa has also started a new “Nobel challenge” group: I’ve made a thread there and wasted unconscionable amounts of time over the last few days working out how many Nobel Literature laureates I’ve read and not read — it comes out close to 50% each.

—I’m also hoping to join the continuation of the CR Victorian theme, hosted by AnnieMod, with Susana Moodie, Walt Whitman and Henry James on the menu this time:

—…and I almost forgot, the background-level project to read everything on RebeccaNYC’s “Hope to read soon” list:

Given all that, and other things going on in my life, I’m probably not going to be setting up any serious reading projects on my own initiative this quarter. But you never know.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff (and a certain amount of random debris from Little Libraries) on the TBR pile at the moment, 88 books including three 2016 arrivals and five 2017 arrivals that ought to be tackled soon.

joulukuu 29, 2022, 10:07 am

Looking forward to your posts as always.

joulukuu 29, 2022, 1:10 pm

Welcome to Club Read 2023, Mark! I imagine we'll bump into each other often this year, between CR, RG theme reads, and the Nobel group. Although I don't also have anything erudite to say, I always read your reviews with pleasure.

joulukuu 29, 2022, 4:37 pm

Hello, hello, hello!

joulukuu 29, 2022, 10:50 pm

Happy new thread. Time does seem to be having its way with our 22 yr old millenium.

joulukuu 31, 2022, 12:02 pm

>1 thorold: oh that did make me laugh! welcome to 2023 hope its filled health, joy and many good reads

joulukuu 31, 2022, 2:34 pm

I'm always a little intimidated by the quantity, quality and diversity of what you read. Still, I will follow your thread again with great interest in 2023. Happy New Year!

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 31, 2022, 6:10 pm

Thanks, all, for the good wishes, I’m looking forward to sharing my reading with the CR community again. Not quite here 2023 yet, because I’m in the UK, but best wishes for the New Year anyway.

>9 cindydavid4: …and as long as we live in a world where Milton can make people laugh, I don’t think we have any right to lose hope in humanity :-)

tammikuu 1, 2:01 pm

Looking forward to your great reading again this year, Mark.

tammikuu 2, 4:16 pm

Happy New Year! I wish you the best of luck in shortening the distance in your relationship, even if it does diminish the frequency of your postings.

I'll be interested to see what you're reading for The Baltic Seas theme.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 4, 3:37 pm

>11 thorold: yep btw did you notice I put the field on my top list of reads last year? I'm planning to put review on my page, it was .y last read of the year so thought I'd sneak it in. Thx for all the bb books you've passed my way!

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 11, 5:00 am

>14 cindydavid4: That’s great! It’s always a good feeling when something like that works out well.

Finished my first book of the year, a thousand-page monster I started well before Christmas:

Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969 (2015) by Frank Witzel (Germany, 1955- )


This seems to be a book like no other, although it does have a certain kinship with the American “male sprawl” novels of the sixties and seventies. The narrator is a former teenager looking back on his formative years in the provincial Germany of the fifties and sixties, a period during which he and his school friends might— or might not — have founded a gang that shared its name with a celebrated anarchist terrorist movement. Or was identical with that movement.

Much is uncertain, not least because the ex-teenager has been in and out of institutions (and seems to be in one now), and the text continually contradicts itself about trivialities like events and people and explores every conceivable style and genre from Catholic hagiography to philosophical aphorisms, in what the Deutscher Buchpreis jury called “…a great quarry, a hybrid compendium of pop, politics and paranoia”. Because the big question the book seems to be setting out to answer is not really “East or West?”, or even “RAF or Baader-Meinhof?”, but “Beatles or Stones?”

Predictably, perhaps, it also seems to be the sort of quarry where one visit is nothing like enough to get a proper feel for how it all fits together. Witzel helpfully provides a detailed keyword index that should make it possible to find all sorts of interesting new ways back in when you get lost, but I must confess to struggling a bit on a first visit. I did enjoy Witzel’s barbed nostalgia for the early days of the Wirtschaftswunder, and some of the stylistic play was really entertaining, but there were a few long stretches where the technique seemed to become more important than the novel it was meant to be supporting. I’m not sure if I could face that essential reread for a while…

tammikuu 4, 11:52 pm

>15 thorold:

Sounds intriguing, but "sprawl" has a chilling effect on me.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 11, 5:01 am

>16 LolaWalser: Quite. There’s a lot to be said for browsing through a library copy before you commit yourself.

Since it’s not quite twelfth night yet, a quick blast of seasonal trivia…

Un Noël de Maigret (1951; Maigret’s Christmas ) by Georges Simenon (France, 1903-1989)


Maigret becomes — perhaps unreasonably — suspicious when the little girl across the street reports seeing a strange man in a red suit and white beard in her room on Christmas night.

Simenon and his family had obviously been in America long enough by Christmas 1951 to take it for granted that all children would believe in Santa Claus, but not long enough to realise that the rules of the genre don’t allow writers to put the jovial chimney-climber under suspicion of serious violent crimes. But this is an entertaining story, one of those where the Commissaire is able to solve the whole thing from the comfort of his own living room with the help of a few phone calls, taking advantage of Mme Maigret’s sharp observation of her neighbours.

tammikuu 5, 6:05 am

Ah a Simenon from 1951. It was an average year for Simenon who seems to have had eight books published that year during his stay in America. According to wiki the original Un Noël de Maigret also contained Sept petites croix dans un carnet et Le Petit Restaurant des Ternes.

You have reminded me I must track down some Simenon

tammikuu 5, 9:07 am

Happy New Year!

Simenon is an embarrassing gap in my reading, given where I live. One day I’ll get to him.

tammikuu 5, 9:12 am

>15 thorold: American “male sprawl” novels of the sixties and seventies.

never heard of these. what are these novels of which you speak(not that Id read them, mind you, just curious)

tammikuu 5, 3:47 pm

>17 thorold: ...had obviously been in America long enough by Christmas 1951 to take it for granted that all children would believe in Santa Claus, but not long enough to realise that the rules of the genre don’t allow writers to put the jovial chimney-climber under suspicion of serious violent crimes.
That alone makes it sound like fun.

>19 rachbxl: I suspect the reason I am often reluctant to read him now, although I enjoy him, is that his books were used in school as translation exercises from French to English.

tammikuu 5, 6:23 pm

>20 cindydavid4: My mind leaped to Infinite Jest, the acme of male sprawl.

tammikuu 5, 7:28 pm

heh and I read that as the acne of male sprawl, so I sorta understand :) Never read that one, Im remembering it came out at the time when everyone was talking about the post modern novel, which after 20 years I still don't understand

tammikuu 5, 8:07 pm

>22 RidgewayGirl:

Kay, I never read it (and am very unlikely to), but recently I came across one mention of it that almost endeared DFW to me--allegedly there's a sentence in it where he/the hero tells another how he likes to do things like rush into a taxicab and shout "The library! And step on it!"

(now we all go "AWWWW")

tammikuu 6, 5:03 am

>23 cindydavid4: the acne of male sprawl


tammikuu 7, 8:19 pm

>19 rachbxl: Ditto re Simenon. He just seems like someone I should have read one book by.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 11, 5:03 am

>19 rachbxl: >21 SassyLassy: >26 lisapeet: Simenon wasn’t the nicest of people, but he’s always an interesting crime writer. Eternally fascinated by how respectable people can go off the rails.

Putting a foot in the door of the Nobel challenge, here’s a writer I was surprised to realise I’d never got around to.

The Forsyte Saga (1922; parts 1906-1921) by John Galsworthy (UK, 1867-1933)


This was the first of the three trilogies Galsworthy wrote about the eponymous family of successful upper middle class lawyers and businessmen, whom he uses to stand for a certain Victorian, English set of attitudes and values focused on the primacy of money, social position, respectability and security.

The lawyer Soames Forsyte has a central position in all three novels: he’s an almost-perfect embodiment of Forsyteism, his idea of himself as a Man of Property invariably trumping any distant echoes of aesthetic sense or human feeling that get through to him. In the first novel we see his despotic possession of his wife Irene fall apart when she falls for the distinctly un-Forsyteish architect Philip; in the second we find him being pushed into a position where his desire for a child forces him into the ultimate sacrifice of respectability, a passage through the divorce court; and in the third he is pushed towards another major sacrifice of reputation for the sake of his daughter.

Galsworthy writes with a Trollope-like irony towards his characters (and a very Trollope-like fascination with legal quirks), but it’s informed by a 20th-century scepticism about Victorian values, written in the aftermath of the humiliation of South Africa and (in the last book) the horrors of the Great War. And a certain sense of nostalgia, too: when Timothy Forsyte, last of the Victorian generation, is interred in Highgate Cemetery, it’s a bit like the death of Emperor Franz-Joseph. Oddly, he doesn’t have anything to say about the Women’s Suffrage movement, but he does stress how Victorian law and custom were used to oppress women, and puts in his own plea for a long-overdue reform of divorce laws.

In hindsight, Galsworthy seems an unlikely choice for the Nobel. While he undoubtedly sold a lot of books and gave a lot of pleasure to his readers, he was really a Victorian novelist who happened to have most of his career in the 20th century. And it’s not as though the early thirties were a period of literary drought, even in Britain. DH Lawrence and Joseph Conrad might have died too early for the 1932 prize, but Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells and T.S. Eliot would all seem like obvious candidates.

tammikuu 8, 12:28 pm

>27 thorold: No comment on whether or not he deserved the Nobel, but I did really enjoy reading the Forsyte Saga. I never went on to read the next two trilogies. Do you think you will?

tammikuu 8, 12:36 pm

>28 japaul22: I suspect I might. Not immediately, but I did enjoy this.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 8, 2:55 pm

And Edith Wharton (for 1932 Nobel). I really enjoyed your review of the saga. I've read a few posts on it here in LT, ones that made me curious. Your review seems to put it in a context I can make sense of. Some day...

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 9, 9:04 am

>27 thorold: Do you remember the TV series in 1967 with Eric Porter, Margaret Tyzack, Nyree Dawn Porter, Kenneth More. It caused a bit of a sensation

tammikuu 9, 7:14 am

>31 baswood: I remember people talking about it, but I don’t think I ever saw it. I think the celebrity of the TV adaptation might have been part of the reason I never bothered with the books. I had them mentally filed away as station-bookstall costume drama, which isn’t what they are at all.

tammikuu 9, 12:39 pm

Hello, Mark. I’ll be following along, as usual, although mostly just lurking to see what you are reading.

>27 thorold: In 2016, I read all nine of The Forsyte Chronicles. I won’t comment about them being prize worthy, but I did find them enjoyable.

tammikuu 11, 5:30 am

Another Nobelist, slightly more recent:

Red sorghum (1987; translation 1993) by Mo Yan (China, 1955- ) translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt


A family in rural China in the 1920s and 30s confronts banditry, civil war and the Japanese occupation. Mo Yan plays with the timeline to force us to read this as a novel about individual people, not abstract historical events, and there's a lot of local colour — most of it red and cereal-based — grim wit, and human resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.

Inevitably, given that it's dealing with times in which civil order had broken down in the face of barbarism and competing factions, there's a lot of violence. Mo Yan places at least one act of extreme violence at the centre of each chapter, and each one is described in loving and often grotesque detail. I'm guessing that the idea is that we are supposed to realise how the incessant piling up of shocking detail is desensitising us to what is going on, in something like the way it might if we were confronted with it in real life, but after a while it just started to feel vaguely pornographic.

I can see the importance of this book, and it probably goes a long way to explain how China works and why the current Chinese government is so authoritarian and so extremely allergic to any sign of disorder. But, from the perspective of my particular squeamish, western, liberal ivory tower, it's not really a book that I would ever want to read again or to recommend to anyone else.

tammikuu 11, 6:24 am

I overlooked this 1980s book somewhere along the line, but LolaWalser was talking about it on her thread and I realised it was something I ought to have read...

Der Mauerspringer : Erzählung (1982; The Wall-jumper) by Peter Schneider (Germany, 1940- )


This short book calls itself a story, but it reads more like an extended essay. Schneider playfully explores the way ordinary people were dealing with the phenomenon of the Berlin Wall at a point in the 1980s where it had been in existence for a good twenty years and wasn't showing any sign of ever going away again. He talks about his own experience as a West Berlin resident occasionally visiting the East, and about his friends on both sides — his girlfriend, who has moved from East to West leaving her family behind; a neighbour who moves from West to East; East German writers and their friends, and so on.

He also gives us various case-studies of individualists who challenged the existence of the border in odd ways: the eponymous "wall-jumper," who repeatedly vaulted the wall from West to East on the apparent grounds that he couldn't be bothered to walk round to the official crossing point (the West Berlin authorities couldn't prosecute him since they didn't recognise the border; those in the East didn't know what to do with him other than sticking him in mental institutions to cool his heels before sending him home); the three East Berlin lads who discovered a weak point in the wall and used it to spend their Saturday afternoons in a West Berlin cinema (no-one noticed until a West German journalist got hold of the story); a man who drove the intelligence services on both sides crazy by repeatedly crossing over to offer his services as a double- triple- or quadruple-agent; another who spent his time raiding the border fortifications to steal East German military hardware; and so on.

The point seems to be that in the real world, people are able to accommodate themselves to almost any weird situation, even a city arbitrarily split in two, and just find ways to get on with normal life. But also, it's a reminder to West Germans not to make too many easy assumptions about the intrinsic superiority of their system. The DDR had a lot of things wrong with it, but there was always another side to the argument, and — up to a point — it continued to function because there were enough people who still believed in the ideals of socialism and were not bursting to move away but cherished the hope that the country's deficiencies could be repaired.

tammikuu 11, 6:45 am

And another short book read on the train yesterday to make a start on the Baltic theme. I've previously read and enjoyed two other books by Nors: Mirror, shoulder, signal and So much for that winter.

Wild swims : stories (2018; translation 2020) by Dorthe Nors‬ (Denmark, 1970- ), translated from Danish by Misha Hoekstra


A collection of short, enigmatic stories about people who are not quite at home in the world, in which the real thing that's going on often seems to be somewhere in the background, just hinted at in a passing phrase that you might almost miss the first time you read it.

The man in the opening story "In a deer stand" is stuck in a forest, injured and waiting for rescuers who might never arrive, but his real concern is with someone called Lisette who seems to have become the third person in his marriage; in the title story "Wild swims" a woman imagines swimming illegally in the moat of a fortress, but finds the necessary contact with other people involved in the experience of using a municipal swimming pool every bit as wild and dangerous. And so on in the other twelve stories squashed into this 120-page Pushkin Press book: Nors keeps on turning everyday reality into something strange and challenging.

tammikuu 11, 8:06 am

>35 thorold: And that's a book bullet! It's not my usual type of book, but it sounds fascinating. Adding to my TBR.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 11, 9:03 am

Another book from my quick visit to the St Pancras branch of Hatchard's yesterday, also nearly finished on the train home...

It's one of those books I have been hearing about on and off for years but never actually seen until now:

The ascent of Rum Doodle (1956; reissued 2001) by W E Bowman (UK, 1911-1985)


A semi-forgotten English comic classic, this spoof mountaineering memoir didn't make much impact when it came out in 1956, and it threatened to disappear altogether when the original publisher went bankrupt a few years later. For a long time it was only available in a kind of samizdat edition produced by a specialist climbing publisher, but it gradually turned into a cult classic among mountaineers. Few people had actually seen it, but everyone knew about it and made knowing references to the title and the number "153", which is a kind of leitmotif in the story.

Rum Doodle's return to the mainstream seems to have been partly precipitated by the accident that Bill Bryson ended up with the Times's discarded review copy of the original edition, enjoyed it, and chanced to mention it favourably in a column some decades later. Bowman's widow got in touch with him, one thing led to another, and eventually a new mainstream edition came out in 2001 with an introduction by Bryson to make sure it didn't go under again.

The book claims to be a straightforward account of the first ascent of the mountain Rum Doodle, elevation 40,000' 6", in the remote Himalayan region of Yogistan, by a team of seven British climbers and their 3000 Yogistani porters (due to a translation error there are actually 30 000 waiting for them initially, but they manage to pay off the superfluous ones). The narrator, the team-leader "Binder", beautifully captures the essential tone of modest heroism, whilst inadvertently revealing to the reader a history of bumbling, incompetence and selfishness in the finest traditions of Three men in a boat. Binder and his companions, attempting to run away from the much feared camp-cook Pong, somehow end up climbing the subsidiary summit North Doodle (some way south of the main summit), whilst another translation mix-up leads to the porters moving Base Camp and the stretcher-bound expedition doctor, aptly named Prone, to the summit of Rum Doodle itself.

Of course, even though the running joke is that the local porters are far fitter, stronger, and more competent and resourceful than the British team members, and end up doing almost all the useful climbing work, seventy years on it's inevitable that some of the jokes about Yogistanis and their culture will seem in rather poor taste. You can't make fun of imperialist attitudes in this sort of context without implicating the reader in those attitudes at least a little bit. And Bowman is firmly in a tradition of humour that is more Edwardian than 1950s, anyway. But within those limits, this is a book that still has a lot of laughs to offer the 21st century reader. Bowman's style is slow-firing, but it gets under your skin.

153 stars.

tammikuu 11, 9:33 am

>38 thorold: Fascinating publishing history. The humour makes me wonder why it wasn't in the books at home - I'm sure I would have remembered the title!

tammikuu 11, 11:53 am

>34 thorold: That was one I was hoping to read for the Nobelist group, since I have it on my Kindle, and it's not one of the books packed away, so I'm sorry to see that you didn't like it. (Though I will say I've never been particularly squeamish about violence in books if it does not seem gratuitous). Many years ago I saw the movie Red Sorghum and thought it was excellent.

tammikuu 11, 12:09 pm

Enjoyed your charming reviews and the 153 stars. A little surprised at how unpleasant you found Red Sorhgum (but you still finished it). I’ve been hesitant to read Mo Yan, before reading your take.

tammikuu 11, 2:07 pm

I'm late in the game, but will follow your readings this year again. I always learn so much around here!
And so much interesting reading has already happened this year!

>34 thorold: You made me reread my review for Red Sorghum, and I realise I had similar issues with this book, although my review is not as articulate as yours.
I happen to have Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, a 900+ page book by the same author. I was planing to read it last year but did not have the opportunity. Now I wonder if I should.

tammikuu 11, 4:27 pm

>34 thorold: But, from the perspective of my particular squeamish, western, liberal ivory tower, it's not really a book that I would ever want to read again or to recommend to anyone else.

My thoughts exactly

tammikuu 11, 4:49 pm

seven British climbers and their 3000 Yogistani porters


Never heard of Bowman but I'm always in for a Three men in a boat... type of story. Mo Yan's (re)noted too.

Regarding the Wall etc. I've realised I'm in dire need of not-pro-capitalist-biased history. I was reading The myth of the good war and the discussion about how the US blocked the reparations to the USSR, the role that played into their taking over West German industry and how the division of Germany actually suited them, was eye-opening.

tammikuu 12, 1:08 am

>44 LolaWalser: Never heard of Bowman

He wasn’t someone anyone had ever heard of — there were a lot of rumours at one time that it was a nom-de-plume for a famous climber, but it turned out that he was just an eccentric outsider, a structural engineer in his day-job, who never climbed anywhere more exotic than the Lake District. There was one other published comic novel, and according to Bryson he wrote stacks of unpublished (unpublishable) books, including a treatise on the letter “A” and a complete revision of Einstein’s theory of relativity. The sort of story that is so charming that it could only possibly happen in real life.

tammikuu 12, 9:37 am

>42 raton-liseur: Life and Death are Wearing Me Out is a real change in tone from Red Sorghum.
One of the things from my thoughts on Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, which covers about 40 years of PRC history from 1948 onward: (Ximen Nao was a landlord murdered in 1948)

In awarding Mo Yan the Nobel Prize for literature, the Swedish Academy said his work "with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary". This perfectly summarizes this novel, in which Ximen Nao will return again and again in the cycle of life as various animals, until his mind is at peace. Lord Yama will not allow him to return as a human until all his hatred is gone, saying there is too much hatred on earth already.

The lesson for Ximen Nao: It's nobody's fault...Everything is determined by fate and there's no way anyone can escape it.

tammikuu 12, 12:10 pm

I had a quick cast around in the library today for short works by the omitted Nobel laureates on my list. The first one on the pile I brought home was a waste of time — when I looked at it more closely I saw it was a very much abridged "Spanish for beginners" version of El señor Presidente, which I shall have to come back to in the full-length version.

The next novella in the pile was more useful, enabling me to cross off the 2002 laureate from my list at the cost of a mere 112 pages in English translation (of course I mean to come back to him and read some longer books!).

Detective story (1977; translation 2008) by Imre Kertész (Hungary, 1929-2016), translated to English by Tim Wilkinson


Imre Kertész, of course, spent his teenage years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and had more reason than most writers to know about the psychology of totalitarianism. In this novella he turns the tables and puts himself inside the head of a secret police officer in an imaginary Latin American dictatorship, who has become fascinated by the case of Enrique Salinas, the idealistic, dilettante student son of a wealthy businessman. Enrique is trying to find a way into opposition to the regime, while the police are trying to find useful evidence against him, and it's anybody's guess who will get there first. In the end, sadly, it doesn't seem to matter: there is a devastating logic that drives the process of Enrique's and the policeman's mutual destruction, seemingly independent of what anyone actually does.

Short, brutal and unanswerable in its dark analysis of how absolute power inevitably goes wrong.

tammikuu 12, 3:09 pm

>46 SassyLassy: Thanks. You make me more willing to try to read it then!

>47 thorold: I had forgotten Imre Kertész had won the Nobel Prize! I've read Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertesz and I think remembering it was a difficult read, both due to the subject and to the way it is written, and I did not really want to renew the experience (despite having Fatelessness on my shelves).
But this one, Detective story seems really different, so maybe I should give it a try.

tammikuu 12, 4:57 pm

>48 raton-liseur: I have that book on my TBR, too, but my book's title is Fateless. I suppose it has to do with the translation?

I just finished The Complete Maus, so I'll probably give myself some time before picking up this one.

tammikuu 12, 5:14 pm

>49 kac522: Looks as though the more recent Tim Wilkinson translation is Fatelessness whilst the Wilsons were Fateless. Possibly the graphic designer of the earlier translation balked at the idea of fitting a twelve-letter single-word title onto a cover in a reasonable font size?

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 12, 5:27 pm

>50 thorold: Or the 2005 movie?

tammikuu 12, 10:53 pm

>47 thorold: nice review. I'm hoping to read Fatelessness this year (my copy includes the "ness")

tammikuu 13, 1:10 pm

>49 kac522: >50 thorold: >51 kac522: Mine is called Etre sans destin ;)
There is a certain level of ambiguity in it, as "etre" could be a noun ("a (human) being") or a verb ("to be"), so you can translate it as "a being without fate" or "to be without fate". I always wondered which one is the "right" interpretation. I guess there is none!

>52 dchaikin: I'll be interested to read your thoughts on this.

tammikuu 13, 4:50 pm

>53 raton-liseur: I think I like that title better. It's a book on my list for this year for the Nobel read. Mine will be in English!

tammikuu 14, 2:07 pm

I've been digging through your past reviews and really liking what I've seen -- I'll be watching this space with great interest.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 15, 9:36 am

>55 slimeboy: Thanks! Have fun...

Another Nobella, this time a re-read (I must have read it the first time shortly after it came out), because it's a book that fits in perfectly with the Baltic theme as well.

Unkenrufe: Eine Erzählung (1992; The call of the toad) by Günter Grass (Germany, 1927-2015)


Alexander and Alexandra are strangers who get into conversation after they bump into each other at a flower stall in the Dominican market hall in Gdánsk on All Souls' Day 1989. One thing leads to another, a cemetery visit is followed by a mushroom (Steinpilz/porcini) supper, and the two of them also cook up, first, an interesting business idea, and second, what turns into a serious relationship. They are both widowed and around sixty, and they were both exiled in their teens by the border-changes of 1945, he as a German from Danzig/Gdánsk and she as a Pole from Wilno/Vilnius. Their sharing of family memories leads them to the grand scheme: a service to allow exiles like their parents and themselves to profit from the end of the Cold War and seek burial in the places where they came from.

The German-Polish-Lithuanian Funeral Company soon becomes a reality: they are clearly tapping into a serious demand, and the money starts rolling in. And of course it soon starts going wrong, the idealistic notions of reconciliation in death are overtaken by the demands of free-market capitalism, and Alexander and Alexandra find themselves repelled by the monster they have created.

Grass, of course, enjoys nothing more than being the lonely pessimistic toad raining on the West German parade of reunification and the end of the iron curtain. He had great fun in those days, when he was being attacked in editorials and political speeches practically non-stop. And it probably gave him a certain satisfaction to have been largely right about all the things that the free market was going to smash up in the former socialist states. He didn't quite manage to predict the rise of populist nationalism in places like Poland and Hungary, but he did put his finger on a lot of the external causes of that trend. And this is also a lively story, with a lot of detail about Gdánsk and the way its German and Polish sides come together, and some entertaining characters like the octogenarian Erna Brakup with her felt hat and antediluvian Danzig-German dialect, or the British-Bengali Mr Chatterjee, who is developing a pedal-rickshaw empire across Polish cities and takes over part of the Lenin Shipyard to build his own rickshaws.


Nobel-crossover trivia: interesting to see Grass using the same imagery here as Nadine Gordimer's Six feet of the country — he talks about 2.5 square meters, but it's the same idea, that's the piece of land that we are all entitled to. Sooner or later.

>50 thorold: >51 kac522: >53 raton-liseur: etc. — more title translation fun here: in German it's literally "toad calls" (plural), but the English publishers must have had Jack London in the back of their minds and make it singular with an added definite article. French and Italian are like English — L'appel du crapaud/Il richiamo dell'ululone; Spanish loses the toad image with Malos presagios; Dutch profits from a pun with Onheilspad (where pad can be read either as toad or path)...

ETA: Looking back on this, I was struck by the way Grass — who liked to do his own cover-art — has turned the writing toad into something of a self-portrait. I hadn't noticed that before!

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 15, 8:49 am

>56 thorold:


noun: nobella; plural noun: nobellas

a short novel or long short story written by a Nobel Prize laureate

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 15, 9:37 am

>57 ELiz_M: Precisely! Thanks.

Here's another Nobella from my library pile, the last work of fiction by the 1988 laureate:

The coffeehouse (1989) by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt, 1911-2006) translated from Arabic by Raymond Stock


This 135-page novella manages to pack in most of Egypt's 20th century history as well as what feels like a lot of detail about the lives of the four main characters, from primary school to old age. They — and the elusive narrator, who doesn't tell us anything at all about himself — have been meeting regularly throughout that time in the Qushtumur coffee-house in the middle-class Cairo suburb of Abbasiya. Over the coffee, water-pipes and dominos they exchange gossip, discuss poems, books, politics and women, and offer each other advice, sympathy, mockery or ribaldry, as the case may be. It's a book with a relaxed, even tone, distancing itself a little from the dramas of life, but it's clearly also a kind of affectionate farewell to the (male) middle-class Cairo world in which Mahfouz spent most of his life, written from the perspective of old age. Very enjoyable.

tammikuu 15, 1:29 pm

>56 thorold: the only thing Ive read of Grass is the tin drum, never thought to look for others. This looks intriguing at least the concept. Will have to check it out

tammikuu 15, 1:45 pm

Tiens, tiens! I need to learn more about Grass...

>58 thorold:

Pfffft, "coffeehouse". Yeah, for men only. *eternally peeved*

tammikuu 15, 4:02 pm

enjoying your nobella track.

tammikuu 15, 4:05 pm

>60 LolaWalser: Yes, Grass has a lot to him. Not all good, but usually interesting. And he did really enjoy criticising West Germany. And you're right, the Mahfouz is very "men only". Oddly made me think of Kingsley Amis without beer — difficult though that is to imagine...

Something completely different, but still a Nobella, an early short work by the 1952 laureate:

Le Fleuve de feu (1923; The river of fire) by François Mauriac (France, 1885-1970)


Mauriac looks at the conflict between Sexual Desire and the Soul as it plays out in the physically and morally battered France of the aftermath of the Great War. Gisèle is a nice young girl of good family, convent-educated and with an older friend, Lucile, who is of impeccable character and acts as a sort of spiritual director to her. What could possibly go wrong? Well, shocking as it must have been to Mauriac's readers at the time, it turns out that Gisèle actually rather likes the occasional sexual adventure. Fortunately, there's nothing as devious as the Catholic Church when it comes to rescuing souls in peril, and threads are twitched just in time to save her from perdition.

There were some quite enjoyable passages, but there's a limit to how much jazz-age Catholic moralising most of us are prepared to put up with these days, and this book, short as it is, goes way beyond that limit. Recommended for those who wish there was more Bossuet in F Scott Fitzgerald.

tammikuu 15, 4:41 pm

wish there was more Bossuet in F Scott Fitzgerald

oh lol!

Mauriac most recently came up for me when I read that memoir of Anne Wiazemsky's, her meeting etc. with Godard. Mauriac was her grandfather!

tammikuu 15, 6:09 pm

You've inspired me to look at what my library has by Gunter Grass.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 15, 6:16 pm

>56 thorold: Interesting review of the Call of the Toad I have not read any Günter Grass, but I have read le Sagouin, Mauriac where the catholicism is toned down a little.

tammikuu 16, 3:47 am

>63 LolaWalser: I’m sure there must be a top ten list to put together on “celebrities with inappropriate/unexpected grandfathers”: Anne Wiazemsky and Mauriac, Olivia Newton-John and Max Born, Liz Truss and my classics teacher, and no doubt dozens more…

tammikuu 16, 5:37 am

I completely forgot to fill in the stats post in >3 thorold: above when I got back to my computer. Done now, for anyone who's interested in that kind of thing. For those who aren't, 2022 was a pretty average sort of reading year for me.

tammikuu 16, 9:47 am

>66 thorold: I love this... if you step outside of straight-up literature, there's always NY Times food critic Sam Sifton, whose grandfather was Reinhold Niebuhr. And let's not forget grandmothers (Courtney Love --> Paula Fox, for starters).

tammikuu 21, 11:24 am

Returning from Nobelists to the Baltic region, this is a book I've been meaning to get to for ages. My mother is a big Kempowski fan, but I've only read two of his novels up to now: the standalone novella Mark und Bein, which looks at similar themes to this book from a perspective of hindsight, and Aus großer Zeit, the first book of his big family saga about his Buddenbrooks-like merchant ancestors in Rostock.

This was his last novel, and is one of his best-known books:

Alles umsonst : Roman (2006; All for nothing) by Walter Kempowski (Germany, 1929-2007)


Kempowski's epic final novel takes on the big subject of the evacuation of Germans from East Prussia during the Soviet advance into the region in the winter of 1945. This was one of the most traumatic moments of the war for German civilians: something like 750 000 people had to flee their homes, and nearly half of them were killed on their way to the west by air raids, the sinking of refugee ships, or by cold, accident or disease. It's potentially a huge story, but Kempowski keeps his focus tight and shows us events, one detail at a time, mostly from the perspective of the twelve-year-old Peter von Globig, whose parents own a small country estate in East Prussia.

The drama of the evacuation itself is all packed into the last few chapters, and most of the book is devoted to building up a context for it, showing us how cracks are starting to appear in German self-confidence as rumours of a Russian advance over the frontier start to get stronger, and exploring how difficult it seems to be for any of us to accept that the stable world we are living in is about to be blasted away completely. The homes, businesses and families we've built up, the wars we've fought: surely that can't have been all for nothing? Even as the artillery starts to rumble in the background and a caravan of farm carts from further east is rattling past the front door, everyone is still making excuses for postponing departure, and Peter is busy playing with his train set and his microscope.

Kempowski spent much of his life collecting ordinary people's memories, and this comes out in the wealth of everyday detail that he uses to illuminate the distorted world on the edge of the abyss: BDM-girls sent out to assist German Mothers-to-be, HJ-lads sweeping snow, forced labourers from the occupied countries doing most of the real work, the self-important block-warden using denunciation to get even with all the people he resents, bureaucrats constantly trying to invent order for the chaos around them by issuing it with papers and permits, the enforcing of rules that have long lost their purpose. Even in the midst of the panic, this is still a world where saying "Good morning" would be seen as an act of reckless subversion: Kempowski uses the insane way that people still hammer on the official "Heil Hitler!" greeting as an ironic Leitmotif throughout the book.

A hugely impressive book, but a surprisingly fine and delicate one too.

tammikuu 21, 3:12 pm

>69 thorold: "nearly half of them were killed on their way to the west" - I didn't know that. Actually, between my sem-recent reading of Primo Levi and Uwe Johnson, I have a whole new perspective on the masses of WWII refugees that I truly wasn't aware of before. Also, Mark, another great review.

tammikuu 21, 3:50 pm

the insane way that people still hammer on the official "Heil Hitler!"

Uncharitable it may be, but I only think about what the bastards would have done and thought had Germany won.

They didn't reap half of what they deserved.

As it is, the US helped them turn the military loss into all-out victory today.

tammikuu 21, 5:05 pm

>71 LolaWalser: They didn't reap half of what they deserved.

Kempowski certainly isn’t exonerating anyone: there are only a handful of people in the book with a clear view of how evil the regime is, and several of those are too deeply implicated in that evil to step back from it, whilst the others get no further than small, futile acts of opposition. There’s no suggestion that (East Prussian) Germans in general have lost faith in the Nazi project even when it’s visibly collapsing around them.

tammikuu 21, 5:34 pm

>72 thorold:

Huge numbers never did. IIRC Uwe Timm writes about some of that too (and he's a relative "youngster").

Tough subject. You are probably aware of the controversy Sebald caused by his insistence that the tale of German suffering in WWII hadn't been told.

tammikuu 21, 7:02 pm

>69 thorold: Excellent review - you just hope you are never in a position where an invading army is going to run through your hometown.

tammikuu 22, 4:53 am

>73 LolaWalser: Yes, the unprovocatively-titled Luftkrieg und Literatur! — I'll have to get back to that, I started re-reading Sebald last summer but other things intervened, as ever.

German literature couldn't exist without controversies...

Back to the Nobels. This was all I could pick up by the 2020 laureate during my brief foray into the St Pancras Hatchards on my way home from England. But I've got her most recent Collected Poems on order as well.

It's just under the 200-page threshold, but I'm not sure if it counts as a Nobella...

American Originality: Essays on Poetry (2017) by Louise Glück (USA, 1943- )


I was rather hoping that "American originality" would turn out to be one of those famous oxymorons, like "British cuisine" or "military intelligence", but apparently it's not: in the title essay of this collection of twenty years' worth of prose writings (mostly) about poetry, Glück suggests that originality in the arts in America has to tie into the American imperative of self-creation. Poets have "to break trails, to found dynasties ... to be capable of replication". Whitman, Pound and Dickinson can be revered as founding fathers of one sort or another, but someone like Seamus Heaney would never have done as an American, as Glück considers him inimitable.

The collection continues with a group of other essays on "big topics" in poetry (and a stray 500 words on Thomas Mann, which is all in the magnificently concrete first sentence: "Buddenbrooks ends when there are no men left"). Then there are ten introductions Glück wrote for the winners in "first book" competitions for new poets that she judged, fortunately all well-stuffed with examples so that they make sense as standalone pieces, and finally a small group of slightly more subjective essays on "Revenge", "Estrangement" and "Fear of happiness" in poets.

There's not much clue to Glück herself in these essays, though: a lot of fierce, clear thinking and very pared down prose full of abstract nouns. Blink and you'll have to go back a paragraph to make sense of what you're reading. She approves of poets who go all out in their work, she seems to prefer poems that use complete sentences to sterile grammatical experimentation, and she writes in defence of narrative and humour in lyric verse. She evidently has no time for cliché in her own writing or anyone else's, and she doesn't seem to care much for rhetoric. But the ten introductions cover a very wide range of types of writing, so she clearly values commitment, ability and originality more than conformance to any particular template.

Great critical writing, all about the work with the egos of both the critic and the author firmly relegated to the background.

tammikuu 22, 5:59 am

>69 thorold: I had this one on my radar after reading another review, last year I think, in CR. You make it sound even more interesting.
I've enjoyed your review and lot and make a mental note for this book.

tammikuu 22, 6:17 am

>75 thorold: I can’t figure out why Louise Gluck has never been on my radar. About all I knew was that she’s a poet. Her being laureate and Nobel winner barely registered. Guess I’ll have to remedy that. Academic poets can be tiresome but I guess they need to make money somehow. :)

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 22, 10:33 am

>77 dianeham: Yes — Glück alludes to the problem of American poetry having retreated into the Academy in one of the essays in the book, but she doesn't really take a position on it. I don't suppose she could, from where she stands.

The last in my current batch of library books, one I picked up from the recent acquisitions table. It took me a moment to remember who David Guterson was, perhaps not surprising given that I haven't seen any of his books since Snow falling on cedars and The country ahead of us, the country behind, which were both nearly thirty years ago. The LT author photo looks as though it must be a relic from those glory days as well...

The final case (2022) by David Guterson (USA, 1956- )


When his 84-year-old father, still nominally in practice as a criminal lawyer, unexpectedly gets called in to act as a public defender in a murder case in Skagit County, WA, the narrator — a blocked novelist — has to drive him around and ends up getting interested in the case himself. But this isn't one of those murder cases you read about in novels, where the defence attorney solves the case himself and proves in the nick of time that someone else did it. Guterson sets up a grimly realistic perspective, where there is no mystery about the essentials of what has happened, and the task of the justice system is to find some kind of resolution to a desperately sad sequence of events whilst treating everyone concerned as fairly as possible.

The rather harrowing case — based on research Guterson did on a real case in Skagit County from 2011 — involves the death of a young Ethiopian girl, Abeba/Abigail, as a result of sustained abuse by her adoptive parents, people who have lost touch with the rest of society and somehow also lost all sense of proportion in their belief that it is their Christian duty to maintain authority over their children. Abeba is an orphan with an exceptionally tough early childhood in Ethiopia behind her: her tragedy is that she has the strength of mind to resist the Harveys' attempts to dominate her, but not the physical robustness to survive what they do to her.

But then this isn't quite a "true crime" novel, either: for very good reasons, the narrator drops his reportage on the case in mid-stream, and we divert off into another story centred on his family life and writing career, which mostly seems to involve him hanging around in his sister's tea-shop, Cajovna. Because tea-shops is what Seattle is famous for, right?

An interesting and quite worthwhile take on the "novel about not being able to write" idea, with some moderately interesting things to say about families and about what lawyers and writers actually do.


The Venetian-blind-shadow thing on the cover was already a dead and buried cliché back in the days when Guterson's first books came out. And the underlining of the title looks to have been done to provide material for a "don't ever do this" example in a graphic design textbook. I'm sure both Alfred Knopf Sr and Alfred Knopf Jr must be rotating in their graves...

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 22, 1:55 pm

>70 dchaikin: My daughter gave me a book called The Last Million:
Europe's Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War by David Nasaw for Hanukkah. I'm looking forward to reading it. Here's the publisher blurb:

In May 1945, after German forces surrendered to the Allied powers, millions of concentration camp survivors, POWs, slave laborers, political prisoners, and Nazi collaborators were left behind in Germany, a nation in ruins. British and American soldiers attempted to repatriate the refugees, but more than a million displaced persons remained in Germany: Jews, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and other Eastern Europeans who refused to go home or had no homes to return to. Most would eventually be resettled in lands suffering from postwar labor shortages, but no nation, including the United States, was willing to accept more than a handful of the 200,000 to 250,000 Jewish men, women, and children who remained trapped in Germany. When in June, 1948, the United States Congress passed legislation permitting the immigration of displaced persons, visas were granted to sizable numbers of war criminals and Nazi collaborators, but denied to 90% of the Jewish displaced persons.

I also have All for Nothing in the queue for the Baltic Sea theme read.

Edited to say that although I can see the touchstone, it's not showing up once I click save...

tammikuu 22, 4:16 pm

oh my frickin god. Just when you think things were bad enough during the war. I should read it.

tammikuu 22, 4:48 pm

>79 labfs39: Intriguing: Nasaw’s back catalogue looks to be entertainment history and biographies of tycoons. It will be interesting to hear what it’s like.

The famous literary treatment of the post-1945 sorting out of displaced people is Primo Levi’s The truce (The Reawakening in US).

>80 cindydavid4: Be careful, there are a lot more atrocities where those came from. World War II made a huge mess all over the world.

tammikuu 22, 5:16 pm

>81 thorold: The New York Times has a very positive review by Adina Hoffman, with the only detraction being a "wobble" in perspective when it came to the Palestinian/Israeli settlements (too pro-Israel). Kirkus calls it a "searching, vigorously written history," but Sheila Fitzpatrick (whose review I could not read in full), while agreeing it is well-researched, thinks it focuses overly much on Jewish refugees, particularly those who end up in America, and makes light of charges of communist leanings but lots of examples of refugees from the Baltics who were later accused of war crimes. I'll be sure to report out my own impressions when I get to it.

tammikuu 22, 7:20 pm

Oh, that does sound interesting. Please do report back.

tammikuu 22, 7:24 pm

>81 thorold: oh believe me I know. I recently learned about the Wolf Children

tammikuu 22, 11:05 pm

>79 labfs39: ugg. I mean, thanks for sharing and I'm curious about the book, but that quote... ugg.

>81 thorold: I had Primo Levi's Reawakening in mind, but actually Uwe Johnson provides a much different perspective. Anyway, with so many stories of displacement, there are many many perspectives.

tammikuu 23, 9:05 am

Question for thorold: I enjoyed Concrete and I enjoyed Woodcutters, the latter more than the former -- where would you suggest I go next with Bernhard?

tammikuu 23, 11:23 am

>86 slimeboy: The obvious place after Woodcutters is Old masters, and/or The loser, since those get put together in the “Trilogie der Künsten”. I enjoyed Old masters particularly. But I don’t think you can ever go wrong with Bernhard. If you haven’t read the autobiography (Gathering evidence in English), that’s also a high point to look forward to.

tammikuu 23, 12:23 pm

>87 thorold: I've been in search of a strong comic novel, so it's definitely going to be Old Masters for me at the moment. Thank you -- I'm very excited to check it out!

tammikuu 23, 2:06 pm

>88 slimeboy: …I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, but bear in mind that Bernhard may have a different definition of “comedy” from everyone else!

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 25, 6:35 am

Back to the Nobels. This was a book almost purpose-built for the Nobel Challenge, an unembarrassed 1974 grab at the attention of Nobel-chasers like us by a Munich publisher, reprinting German translations of works by both of that year's joint laureates between the same flaming red, Nobel-branded covers.

Martinson and Johnson were near contemporaries, both from rural, working-class backgrounds, and both were autodidacts who left home at a young age and came to writing after a wide variety of other jobs (Martinson was a seafarer and a vagrant, amongst other things; Johnson worked on farms, forests, on the railways and as a showman). In later life they both became members of the Swedish Academy, leading to some raising of eyebrows around the world when the Swedish Academy decided to award them the Nobel Prize...

Der Weg nach Glockenreich : Roman (1948; Vägen till Klockrike / The Road) by Harry Martinson (Sweden, 1904-1978) translated from Swedish to German by Edzard Schaper
Zeit der Unruhe (1960, 1974) by Eyvind Johnson (Sweden, 1900-1976) translated from Swedish to German by Anni Carlsson


Martinson's big picaresque novel of vagrant life follows the adventures of Bolle, a skilled worker — a cigar-maker — who loses his job to mechanisation in the 1890s, and goes on the road as a vagrant after he is unable to raise the fare to America. It's not so much a straight narrative as a collage of incidents and themes in vagrant life — obviously based to some extent on Martinson's own experiences as a vagrant the 1920s, but set back into the years before the First World War.

Martinson uses Bolle's experiences particularly to reflect on the fear and hostility people without a fixed home inspire in those who have one, and the way this affects the character and behaviour of homeless people. But he also has time to talk about the arbitrary injustices of the social care system and the criminalisation of vagrancy, about the joy of travelling on foot through the Swedish landscape and the way that style of vagrancy is becoming a thing of the past with the advent of trains and cars, about pleasant and unpleasant encounters with country people in different parts of Sweden and Norway, and a thousand other things. Through dream-sequences and a kind of magic realist finale in a brickworks he also (half-ironically) sets out what might be an existentialist philosophy (or an anti-religion) providing an intellectual framework for vagrancy.

A big, warm, compassionate book, and a very strongly-felt one, but also a firmly realistic view of the world and its troubles: not the place to go if you want the romance of the road.


Zeit der Unruhe is a publisher-specific selection of German translations of ten of Eyvind Johnson's short stories originally published between the 1920s and the 1940s, in several different Swedish collections.

The title-story, originally "En tid av oro för Eugenia" (in Än en gång, kapten!, 1934), is a lovely piece about a woman who has a slightly too colourful past for a small town, but is now trying to settle down, running a haberdashery shop and engaged to marry the house-painter and (almost) reformed drinker, Göransson. The town unsuccessfully tries to needle them both about her former boyfriends, but then the news comes through that Emil is coming back from America, presumably having made his fortune...

"Burell tappar kraftarna" and "Vallberg" are both stories about showmen trying to make a living in rural backwaters as progress — and younger competitors — catch up with them, the former featuring a young projectionist who must be a self-portrait. Then there are a couple of stories set in a remote railway-hamlet in the North, and a set of more reflective pieces dealing with social and technological change in 20th century Sweden, culminating in "I det Overkliga", a touching little sketch where the narrator and a friendly farmer go on a fishing trip to some mountain lakes, whilst discussing how we can deal with the contradiction of being out enjoying ourselves in beautiful scenery whilst knowing that elsewhere in Europe bombs are falling on civilians.

Probably not enough to get a full picture of what Johnson is about, but certainly enough to see that he must be a very interesting writer, with an unusual perspective on life.

tammikuu 25, 7:25 am

Pretty sure I’ve never seen any commentary on these authors. Great post.

tammikuu 25, 8:27 am

>90 thorold: I enjoyed reading those reviews. The book cover is a striking red colour, but so old fashioned now.

tammikuu 25, 10:11 am

>91 dchaikin: JorgenHolst put together a very interesting post about Swedish writers in the RG Baltic thread, talking about Johnson and Martinson among many others:

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 25, 3:28 pm

...and another quick one, a Boekenweek gift I was missing, that turned up in a Little Library recently. As well as holding down a day-job as a geography professor, W F Hermans was one of the Big Beasts of 20th century Dutch literature. Quite a few of his books have been translated, but not this one — see for instance Beyond sleep, a geography field trip I still have nightmares about:

In de mist van het schimmenrijk : fragmenten uit het oorlogsdagboek van de student Karel R. (1993) by Willem Frederik Hermans (Netherlands, 1921-1995).


The 1993 Boekenweek gift, written in the form of fragments from the diary of a young man living on false papers in occupied Amsterdam between March and October 1944. In the course of a half-baked scheme to build a clandestine radio transmitter, Karel engineers a date with telegraph operator Madelon, whose morse code skills he hopes to exploit. He finds himself sucked into a triangular relationship with her and her fiancé Tjeu, (apparently based on a similar situation Hermans got into during the war). Needless to say, things don't go well: the story becomes a sort of edgy dialogue between the banal ups and downs of Karel's love affair and the life-and-death problems of trying to survive — and if possible do some harm to the Germans — in the wartime situation.

Hermans later revised this in a slightly expanded form as Madelon in de mist van het schimmenrijk.


Just for fun, I lined up all the Boekenweek gifts I could find on one shelf. I think there may be a couple more around somewhere:

tammikuu 25, 3:56 pm

I think Boekenweek with it's Boekenweekgeschenk is such a great tradition. Have you ever used it to travel on the train? Do you try to read the essays as well?

tammikuu 25, 4:09 pm

>95 labfs39: Yes, it’s a wonderful institution. I don’t know if it could be made to work in a bigger literary culture like English — it probably needs something like the incestuous world of Dutch Lit to keep up the momentum. I haven’t got very involved in all the peripheral stuff, especially as I sometimes only come to the books many years later.

The free train travel on the Boekenweek Sunday if you have a copy of the gift is a nice extra, but for most of the time it’s been in force I’ve had a subscription that gives me unlimited off-peak rail travel anyway, so I haven’t benefited from it myself.

tammikuu 25, 7:44 pm

What you say about Martinson reminds me of a great book about socialists in Sweden around the turn of the century, Enquist's The March of the musicians. (Not a spoiler: they were being attacked persecuted and murdered any which way.)

It's odd when one thinks how relatively recently Sweden and Norway were horribly poor.

Love the books snap. I keep dreaming of taking pictures of my hoard so I have something to remember them by.

tammikuu 26, 3:56 am

>97 LolaWalser: Hmm. I should read some more Per Olov Enquist, I enjoyed The royal physician’s visit but never followed that up with anything else. Noting. (Also applies to the Tanizaki book from your thread, I didn’t get much further than the Makioka sisters when we had the Japan/Korea theme.)

tammikuu 26, 10:19 am

Things that happen when you search secondhand book sites using the keyword "Nobel", continued from >90 thorold: above... This looked like an interesting perspective on what it might be like to find yourself in the position of getting that invitation to Stockholm.

I knew nothing about Patrick Tudoret, but he seems to be a specialist in the sociology and anthropology of the media, and apart from this his best-known book is a prize-winning history of TV book programmes.

L'homme qui fuyait le Nobel : roman (2015) by Patrick Tudoret (France, 1961- )


(Author photo

Tristan Talberg has been keeping out of the eyes of the literary media and hasn't written a word since the death of his wife some five years ago, and there's great excitement in France when the Swedish Academy announce him as the next Nobel laureate in literature. But Tristan seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Has he been kidnapped? Or is Philippe Sollers right in saying that the disappearance of the author is the logical consequence of the Nobel process...?

Well, if you've got the book with the promotional band from the publisher still on it, you won't have to guess for long: Tristan has grown a beard, put on hiking shoes, and set off on a very long walk. His initial plan is simply to revisit the Cévennes with a copy of Stevenson in his pocket and relive some of the early days of his life with Yseult(*). But one thing leads to another, he meets some pilgrims, and before long he's on his way to Spain, with ample time and space to find some resolution in the mourning process, to think about Stevenson, Giono, Bernanos, André Suarès and other favourite writers, and to realign his life.

This is somewhere between a serious, reflective novel about writing and bereavement and a romantic comedy starring Depardieu or Martin Sheen (No, not Martin Sheen, he's already done the Camino...). Quite enjoyable, but a bit rough around the edges sometimes: Tudoret hasn't taken quite enough time to establish the practicalities of the story in our minds.

(*) Yes, I groaned too, but Tudoret does redeem himself slightly by explaining that "Tristan" is a nom-de-plume he only adopted after meeting his future wife...

tammikuu 26, 12:36 pm

And another Nobella. I've read nothing by Ōe except one short story collection in the year he won the prize. It's about time to take on at least one of his major novels, but until I do, here's a slim volume of lectures:

Japan, the ambiguous and myself : the Nobel prize speech and other lectures (1995) by Kenzaburo Ōe (Japan, 1935- )


The text of Kenzaburo Ōe's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize from 1994, as well as two lectures given at US universities in 1986 and 1990, and a short series of lectures on Japanese literature "before a Scandinavian audience" (whatever that means) from 1992.

The themes all overlap somewhat: Ōe talks about the romantic affection for Scandinavia he got from reading The marvellous adventures of Nils as a child, and about what he sees as the important moral thread in Japanese literature, from Murasaki Shikibu through Soseki Natsume to himself and the other socially-critical writers who came to prominence in the post-war years.

Ōe talks about the themes that have particularly concerned him: the memory of Japan's aggression in the war and the need for reconciliation and demilitarisation, the need to recognise the importance of peripheral cultures in Japan, especially that of Okinawa, and his own experience as the father of a mentally-handicapped child.

He identifies a similar moral imperative (but coupled with deeply-flawed politics) in Mishima, but he obviously doesn't have much time for the more aesthetic, mystical approach of Tanizaki and Kawabata, who hardly get a mention apart from an acknowledgment of the latter in the Nobel speech — whose title is a play on Kawabata's speech "Japan, the beautiful and myself". (He's also rather dismissive of the "consumer-culture literature" of manga, Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami — I wonder what he thinks about the way Murakami is regularly mentioned now as a Nobel candidate?)

It's notable that in Stockholm he draws his cultural references from Yeats, Auden, Orwell and his own teacher, Kazuo Watanabe, rather than from great Japanese writers. An interesting little collection, and it makes Ōe come across as a very sympathetic sort of character.

tammikuu 26, 5:58 pm

Enjoying your Nobel journey

tammikuu 27, 2:55 am

>100 thorold:

I loved Oe's A Personal Matter and I hated his A Quiet Life and then I've really enjoyed many of his other works. I definitely recommend you dipping your toes into his literature.

As for manga being considered consumer-culture literature, I can see the reference, but sometimes that is exactly what you want. And also, why is that always a bad thing? The joy of manga as well, is that like "literature", there are so many topics and themes and demographics represented that everyone, even Oe, could find something they enjoy. My mother would never read manga, but I made her read The Summit of the Gods and she was really quite wowed by it. Manga is just a medium after all, not a genre.

As for Haruki Murakami being a Nobel candidate, let me hide my laughter behind my sleeve.

tammikuu 27, 6:45 am

>102 lilisin: In fairness to Oe, in the early 90s he was saying that he didn’t know whether it would be a lasting thing, but he wasn’t denying that there were things it does well. His main point was that he thought Japan was turning into an amoral capitalist consumer society and needed writers (like himself) who were able to point out the dangers in that, rather than entertainment-based literature that celebrated consumption.

Oddly enough, A quiet life was one that I was thinking of reading! Which would you recommend as a starting point?

tammikuu 27, 8:04 am

>103 thorold:

I don't actually have a good grasp on your reading tastes so not sure what I would recommend. Obviously I would want you to read A Personal Matter but it's quite the vulgar book so it might not work for you. I definitely think it is the more polarizing of his works. So A Quiet Life might be very much up your alley. Basically, I guess what I'm saying is read more that one of his works before making a conclusion on Oe 'cause he can write about such different things.

tammikuu 27, 8:07 am

Tämä käyttäjä on poistettu roskaamisen vuoksi.

tammikuu 27, 2:16 pm

I saw LibraryThing was promoting the "member vs. site" stats on the charts and graphs page, so I went and had a look. Naturally. I'm not one to resist that sort of thing.

I was surprised to see what a recognisable picture of my tastes the genre graph gives. Genre is a pretty imprecise thing, and we had a lot of discussions when it came out about important categories that the current set of genres on LT doesn't pick up — for instance my significant collections of books on music and on language. But, all the same, if you were to tell me that my shelves were rather below the average proportion among LT members for Religion & Spirituality, Children's Books, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Romance, Young Adult, Graphic Novels & Comics, Art & Design, and considerably above of the average for Travel, Poetry, and LGBTQ+, I think I'd recognise myself in that!

I think there's a small surprise in Religion & Spirituality — I do have at least a shelf and a half of religious books (even if I rarely touch them). But evidently there must be lots of people who have a lot more than that. With Science & Nature, it's a similar picture, I'm "about average", but it's probably really a decent-sized science section (seven years' worth of college textbooks, if nothing else!) being swamped in the numbers by an oversized fiction section. And some bleeding off of engineering books into History or Technology.

tammikuu 27, 2:53 pm

>106 thorold: Yeah, why doesn't music count? Plus, when I drilled down on this chart, it was only categorizing 67% of the books in the collection. So definitely a lot of books missing.

tammikuu 27, 2:58 pm

Another Nobelist, this time one I've read before, but inadequately.

So forth : poems (1996) by Joseph Brodsky (Russia, USA, 1940-1996)


This was Brodsky's last poetry collection, published shortly after his death in 1996, and it contains poems written from about 1989 onwards, some in English and some in Russian (most of the Russian poems appear here in his own English translation, a few were translated by others). The themes are often quite dark, dealing with topics like war, exile and old age — although he was only in his fifties, he had been in poor health for a long time and seems to have known death was just round the corner. But there are also several of his famous nativity poems, a couple of longer poems on subjects from classical mythology, and some of the love poems and satires in the collection turn out to be surprisingly bouncy.

Brodsky obviously shared with his friend Auden a fondness for using jokey language about serious subjects, and it's wonderful to see the panache with which he misuses the English language to good effect. It's difficult to imagine a poet who was a native English speaker having the nerve to rhyme "Senegal" with "chemical" and "sketch pad" with "stupid" in the same quatrain, but Brodsky does so (and worse, far, far, worse...) and gets away with it every time.

He also loves clouds, and they lead to some of his most extravagant images: they "are scattered, like a bachelor's clothes" in one poem, or rear up their "huge lid like a Steinway" in another; in yet another "Clouds of patently absurd / But endearing shapes assert / the resemblance of their lot / to a cumulative thought," and in addition to all that there's a whole, very wonderful, poem about the summer clouds of the Baltic that everyone ought to read.

Good stuff!

tammikuu 27, 4:15 pm

>106 thorold: Well you know you sent me running off to that graph!

tammikuu 28, 8:11 am

>106 thorold: >109 SassyLassy: I posted mine on my thread :-)

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 7, 4:35 am

An unaccustomed gap for me — ten days since I finished a book. There have been distractions, of course, although I don't think any of them was of major significance: the main thing was that I had hit on something really good and didn't want to rush it or read short stuff in between. Another Baltic Nobelist, and someone whose name meant absolutely nothing to me a couple of weeks ago:

Lucky Per (1905; translation 2010) by Henrik Pontoppidan (Denmark, 1857-1943) translated to English by Naomi Lebowitz


Henrik Pontoppidan was a star in his own time, who shared the 1917 Nobel prize with his (possibly even more forgotten) compatriot Karl Gjellerup. Introducing this translation, Garth Risk Hallberg lists Ernst Bloch, György Lukács and Thomas Mann among his more prominent fans. He fits into the "Modern Breakthrough", a Scandinavian modernist cultural and political movement centred around the critic George Brandes. But he's practically unknown in English: he seems to have been forgotten by translators after the second part of The promised land came out in the 1890s, and even his Nobel didn't revive interest: English-speaking readers had other things to think about in 1917. His best-known novel, Lykke-Per, which Danish readers count as one of the top Danish novels of all time, had to wait over 100 years to be translated (but there are now two translations: a new one by Paul Larkin appeared in 2018).

Lykke-Per starts out as a classic Bildungsroman, with a very Balzacian hero: Per is good-looking, attractive to both men and women, self-confident, ambitious, more than a little bit naive, and quite heartless. And everything in his life seems to be falling into place for him. But he's not the Lucien de Rubempré of 1880s Copenhagen: although he mixes with the intellectual and artistic disciples of Dr Nathan (an affectionate caricature of George Brandes), he's an engineer, with ambitions to develop canals and wind and wave energy (Pontoppidan didn't know quite how far ahead of his time he was here!). In Denmark in the decades after the Prussian invasion, technical innovation was controversial: the older, conservative generation were inclined to draw in their heads and keep Denmark small, backward and obscure, avoiding catching the eyes of anyone in Berlin.

More to the point, Per is a Lucien who has to live in a world that knows about Kierkegaard, Ibsen and Nietzsche. Like Pontoppidan, he is the son of a pastor from a small town in Jutland. He has broken off his connection to this pious Grundtvigian-Lutheran background and sees himself as a free agent and an agnostic, but of course it isn't as easy as that: the temptation to slip back into that cosy, secure world keeps stalking him, and he's never as confident as he seems. Eventually, things catch up with him, and he takes the Kierkegaard-like step of breaking an engagement for religious reasons, but of course even that is not the end of the story...

There's a wealth of very interesting local and period detail going on around the psychological story, of course, and there are a lot of very strong minor characters, especially Jakobe Salomon, the Jewish heiress who falls deeply in love with Per despite her strong misgivings about his character, and who is the one woman he has feelings for that go beyond the merely sentimental or sexual. She is educated, intelligent, resourceful and single-minded in achieving the things she wants to get done, a fierce critic of organised religion, and generally miles ahead of poor Per. It's the tragedy of the Bildungsroman format that we have to go on following him in the last part of the book whilst Jakobe gets on with her life-work mostly offstage.

Definitely one of those "why weren't we told about this?" books!

Naomi Lebowitz's translation reads very naturally, on the whole, although as in any translation there were occasional things I wanted to quibble with: a slightly too recent English idiom, perhaps, or a word used in a sense that felt more German than English.


After finishing this last night, I felt the need to recalibrate my ideas of normal Danish life, so I settled down to watch Thomas Vinterberg's wonderful 1998 film Festen...

helmikuu 7, 9:50 am

lol an average of outliers indeed

helmikuu 7, 2:05 pm

>111 thorold:

Good and solid. The guy sounds more like Julien Sorel than Lucien though, who had all too much heart once upon a time.

I'm reading my favourite Dane, Herman Bang, Ida Brandt currently (I mislaid another one started earlier...)

helmikuu 7, 2:24 pm

>111 thorold: nice find. And nice to get some insight into one of the early semi-lost Nobel winners.

helmikuu 7, 5:54 pm

I don't know if Festen represents normal Danish life, but it is a very good film

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 8, 6:45 am

This one caught my eye because SassyLassy reviewed it in the Baltic thread — as everyone knows, I can't resist a good train journey.

I'll keep it short, as there's not really much to add to SassyLassy's excellent review. I noticed on the Wikipedia page that there's a 2021 film version which won a prize at Cannes: I'll have to look out for that.

Coupé No 6 (2010; Hytti nro 6 /Compartment No.6) by Rosa Liksom (Finland, 1958- ), translated from Finnish to Dutch by Annemarie Raas


This is the classic set-up of two fundamentally incompatible people trapped together for an extended period and forced to learn to get along, but it's far from being a silly romantic comedy. We're in the dying Soviet Union in the uncertain weather of a mid-1980s spring, where the Finnish postgrad archaeology student Anna finds herself sharing a compartment on the seemingly endless train journey from Moscow to Ulan Bator with the rough-hewn construction worker Vadim Nikolaevich.

Vadim — whom the narrator only ever calls "the man" — soon reveals himself as unpleasant company in all sorts of ways. He's a violent misogynist who is proud of beating his wife only in private, frequents prostitutes, drinks far too much, seems to have killed a few people with his flick-knife, and is forever telling stories that are clearly designed to shock Anna, even if they aren't always strictly true. But he does have a very sure sense of how to survive in the complicated world of Soviet semi-legality through which they are travelling, and he seems to feel an obligation of hospitality towards Anna. She's travelling to get a breathing-space from a complicated situation in Moscow, and she seems to be almost grateful for his unwanted attentions as a distraction from all that she's left behind.

A wonderfully convincing portrait of Soviet Russia at a very specific moment in history, obviously observed in detail at first-hand, and performing the difficult trick of mixing a travel book with a novel without the joins ever becoming too obvious.


Negative points for the cover-art of this Dutch edition, though: which idiot had the idea of using a stock photo of a 1960s British train compartment? It looks absolutely nothing like a Russian sleeping-car...

helmikuu 8, 11:12 am

>111 thorold: Great review! Dilara read the only book available by this author in French a few weeks ago and Lucky Per caught my eye. But as it's not available in French, I will have to pass. Your review makes me even more sorry not to be able to read it...

>116 thorold: And this is the second positive review of a book that already caught my eye when SassyLassy reviewed it, so now it has twice more weight in my mental wishlist!
(And the cover is the exact same in the French hardcover edition! Too bad...)

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 9, 2:27 pm

So, I complain about taking ten days to finish a 600-page book (>111 thorold:) and then I read an 800-page book in a couple of sessions within 24 hours. Admittedly, it's an 800-page book that only averages about 50 words to a page...

As you'll know if you were following my reading last summer, I'm always a sucker for a rural oral-history compilation, and this particular one was hard to resist, as it happens to be set a short distance from where my Swedish relatives live. I found out about it through Lisa's intro to the Baltic theme, and it turned out that the library had a copy in Dutch:

Osebol (2019) by Marit Kapla (Sweden, 1970- ), translated from Swedish to Dutch by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiesen


Osebol is an isolated hamlet of about forty houses in the north of Värmland, not far from the Norwegian border. People used to live from logging, hunting and subsistence-farming, but nowadays there are few jobs, and young people have to go elsewhere for school or work. The shop has closed, the bridge needs repairs, and the population is getting older rapidly.

Journalist Marit Kapla, who grew up in Osebol, went back to the village in 2016 and 2017 to interview just about all the people who live there, old and young, natives and incomers (there are two Hungarians, a Pole, and two Dutch couples settled in the village, as well as a few urban Swedes and a stray Norwegian). She lets them talk about their background, their memories of growing up, the work they do or used to do, their problems and worries, what they feel about living in the countryside, and just about anything else that happens to come up.

There's no narrator's voice introducing, explaining and correcting. Everything we read in the book is told in the words of the local people, arranged into chapters house by house. To make us focus on the orality of what we're reading, Kapla has laid the text out on the page like free verse, using line-breaks instead of punctuation to give us a sense of the natural rhythms of speech. There are equally natural sudden changes of topic, as new ideas come into the speakers' minds, and where there are several family members being interviewed together, Kapla allows them to alternate or interrupt each other, presumably all according to the way the actual interview went.

It's an unusual strategy, and a risky one (a friend commented that it is strange to read about the decline of the logging industry in a book that must have consumed a good few hectares of timber), but it does seem to work: the characters of the individual speakers come across very strongly. I steamed though this at fairly high speed, as it needs to go back to the library, but I think it's a book to savour and come back to, really. And it will make you want to take that long-postponed trip to Sweden...


Fabulous graphic design within the book. It took me a while to work out the significance of the minimalist design on the facing page before the start of each chapter, but it's a very nice idea. There's a great cover too. The star-trails in embossed metal foil are very eye-catching.

helmikuu 11, 8:48 am

>118 thorold: I'm glad this was an enjoyable read, Mark. Have you spent much time in Sweden?

helmikuu 11, 8:52 am

>119 labfs39: No, criminally little. I haven’t been there since about 1985, and I’ve only ever met my Swedish relatives in Holland. It must be nearly time for a revisit…

helmikuu 11, 9:22 am

>118 thorold:. 50 words to a page is very few.(there are about 625 words to a page of the Don Quijote). There must be a lot of space between lines and a bit of a physical exercise to keep turning the pages. Is it such an unusual book that you might feel the need to leave it lying around on your coffee table for people to peer into?

helmikuu 11, 11:57 am

>121 baswood: Yes, it’s more like a very big poetry collection than a standard non-fiction book. Very design-centred, although there aren’t any actual pictures. Coffee-table dipping might be indicated. I don’t think the author envisaged readers blasting through it in one go. It’s all about immersing yourself in the talk of a small community.

I bought a copy of the English version for my mother, and as well as being very interested in the subject she seems to be quite charmed by the design. Generous use of white-space gets to be more desirable as your eyes get older, I suppose.

helmikuu 16, 5:09 am

More from the Baltic. This is the best-known novel by the distinguished Estonian writer Jaan Kross, who spent time as a political prisoner of both the Nazis and the Soviets.

De gek van de tsaar (1978, translation 1992; The Czar's madman / Keisri hull) by Jaan Kross (Estonia, 1920-2007) translated from Estonian to Dutch by Ronald Jonkers


This historical novel is based on the life of Timotheus von Bock (1787–1836), an aristocratic landowner in Estonia whose liberal ideals and excessive devotion to honesty led him in 1818 to send Czar Alexander I a sixty-page memorandum setting out what was wrong with absolutist rule in the Russian Empire and proposing a new constitution based on accountability and the rule of law. Possibly not a completely wise move. Alexander seems to have been fond of Timo, who had been his aide-de-camp as a young man, so instead of having him charged with treason he went for the milder option of declaring him insane and locking him up in solitary confinement in a gloomy fortress for nine years (but with a piano in his cell!). After Alexander's death, Timo is released into house-arrest on his own estate, but he remains officially insane and therefore legally incompetent.

Timo's liberalism is also manifested in his marriage to Eeva Mättik, an Estonian who was a serf in domestic service when he met her. He has bought the freedom of Eeva's whole family, and sent her and her elder brother Jakob to be educated by a clergyman friend before they marry. Eeva is a very strong character in the novel, resourceful and tireless in her campaigns to prevent Timo from being forgotten about and eventually getting him released.

It is the nosy and cynical Jakob who narrates the story through his secret diary of his life with Timo and Eeva during the period of house-arrest. He takes care to give us the necessary context for Timo's "radical" ideas, which he classes as being almost as progressive as Magna Carta. Timo, after all, is a proud member of a social class that traces its origins back to the Teutonic Knights, and has spent the last six hundred years treating the people of the Baltic region as little better than beasts of burden. (Kross notes in an afterword that in addition to that, Timo almost certainly knew the family tradition that his grandmother was an illegitimate daughter of Peter the Great, and that he would thus consider himself to have more genuine imperial blood in his veins than Alexander.)

Of course, this book was written in the 1970s, and what Jakob tells us about abuses of absolute power, foreign oppression of Estonians, and the misuse of the mental health system to silence dissidents is clearly also meant as covert criticism of the current situation in the Soviet Union, and the Baltic States in particular. What he tells us about Timo's experience of imprisonment and solitary confinement has a very strong sense of personal experience about it.

I found this slightly unsatisfying in narrative terms because Kross is rather reluctant to go beyond the things we have actual historical evidence for, so for instance Jakob's imaginative solution to the mystery of Timo's death is only put forward as a very tentative hypothesis, and not followed up in any way. But it is very strong in giving us a picture of the social situation in Baltic states in the early nineteenth century and in analysing the complicated intersections between protest against an oppressive regime and real or simulated madness.

helmikuu 16, 10:37 am

And another Baltic Nobel laureate. The poet Czesław Miłosz grew up in a Polish-speaking family in what's now Lithuania, and studied in Wilno/Vilna/Vilnius. As well as this book, I've got his memoir Native realm on the shelf waiting to go.

A lot of crossover with the Jaan Kross book I've just finished here, but also of the Wolfgang Leonhard memoir I read in October:

The captive mind (1953) by Czesław Miłosz (Poland, USA, etc., 1911-2004), translated from Polish by Jane Zielonko


Published two years after his definitive break with the post-war Polish state, this is the book where Czesław Miłosz investigates in detail how Stalinism affected the minds of people living in the parts of Europe that fell under Soviet domination after World War II. He looks in the abstract at a number of mental strategies he has identified for coping with totalitarian rule, and in the light of these he considers his own experience as a left-wing writer who lived through the horrors of the Nazi occupation in Warsaw and also looks at four other Polish writers (coincidentally called Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta) who accommodated themselves, or tried not to, in various different ways.

In the final chapters, Miłosz looks at the way the unpredictable individuality of the human mind keeps on undermining the "scientific" assumptions of totalitarian ideologies, and he devotes some time to making sure that his readers are aware of the scale of the horrors inflicted on the people of the Baltic states after the Russian occupations of 1940 and 1945 and the Nazi occupation of 1941. If you're going to have a single political system based on a Russian Centre, you'd better be prepared to put up with mass deportations, he's telling us.

Obviously some of this is very specific to the situation Miłosz was in in the early 1950s, but there are also a lot of frighteningly clear insights into the way people behave under pressure in the real world. And some prescient moments when he talks about the likelihood that the countries of Eastern Europe will rise up against Stalin and be crushed one by one, and about Catholicism as the main threat to Stalinism in Poland. Interesting too how Miłosz, who had seen all this at first hand, praises the insight of George Orwell, who hadn't.

helmikuu 21, 6:04 am

I'm just back from a long weekend in England, inevitably with more books. But I've been making an effort recently to travel in a TBR-neutral way, and this time it worked out well, with me buying three books and finishing three books. Most of the reading was done on the train, since my friends kept me pretty busy the rest of the time. I did manage to arrange a little bit of Baltic-themed input by going to hear the fantastic Danish String Quartet at Wigmore Hall on Friday.

This was the book from the "old end" of the TBR pile I took with me. I bought this in December 2016. Violette Leduc was a lesbian, working-class misfit who was encouraged as a writer by Jean Genet and Simone de Beauvoir. She's best-known for her autobiographical novel La Bâtarde (1964), which I read a couple of years ago.

Ravages (1955) by Violette Leduc (France, 1907-1972)


Violette Leduc's life seems to have been shaped by her consciousness of her origins as an "unwanted child" — her mother was the classic sad case of a young domestic servant made pregnant by the son of her employers. Violette's absent father paid for her to go to boarding school, but she then experienced another kind of rejection when she realised that her mother had built a new life for herself whilst she was away at school.

This novel takes up that theme of fear of rejection in the life of the narrator, Thérèse: after she has been brutally separated from her school-dorm lover Isabelle, and discovered that the cosy relationship she used to have with her single mother is also gone for good, she takes refuge in new relationships with Cécile and Marc, both of which start to crumble away under the pressure Thérèse puts on them, until Thérèse finds herself alone and pregnant, on the way to becoming her own mother.

A very edgy, nervous sort of novel, but one that's full of powerful writing that draws you into seeing the world from Thérèse's difficult and frightened viewpoint.

The publisher wouldn't print the original opening chapter, which contained a rather graphic description of the boarding-school love affair, so that part is only hinted at as back-story in the novel as it appeared in 1955. Leduc reworked the "pornographic" chapter up for separate publication as a standalone novella Thérèse et Isabelle, which — ironically, perhaps — was later adapted for cinema by a director who turned out to specialise in soft porn.

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 21, 6:15 am

A short book, part of my English book-haul:

A cat, a man, and two women (1936; English 1990) by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (Japan, 1886-1965) translated by Paul McCarthy


A lovely miniature piece about a man who allows himself to be manipulated emotionally by his scheming tortoiseshell cat Lily, to the detriment of his relationships with both his first and his second wives. Tanizaki was obviously a close observer of cats as well as human beings...

helmikuu 21, 6:41 am

And another relatively short book from the haul:

Broken April (1982; English 1990) by Ismail Kadare (Albania, 1936- ), translator not credited


Kadare looks into the strange world of the High Plateau in the north of Albania, described by one of his characters as the only place which, while being part of a modern European state, has rejected the idea of a modern legal system and adopted a quasi-feudal code, the Kanun, which regulates every aspect of life, but whose most distinctive and destructive component is the blood-feud.

The story, set at some unspecified moment in the 20th century, probably around the 1920s, follows a man called Gjorg, who has just, reluctantly, performed the killing that is required of him by custom. He now has an agreed truce-period of thirty days before the designated member of the dead man's family will be allowed to shoot him in turn. Crossing Gjorg's path during this time are a writer from the big city, honeymooning in the "romantic" mountains with his new wife; an expert on Kanun-law, the judge Ali Binak, who travels the country settling disputes; and the Steward of the Blood, the man who is responsible for collecting the murder-tax that is the main source of income of the ruling prince of the region. Each gives us a slightly different perspective on the craziness of the system where feuds can never end until all the men of one or other of the contending families are wiped out, and on the people who have an interest in keeping this system alive.

Concise, clear-sighted, and very strange.

helmikuu 21, 9:23 am

>126 thorold: hee i think my cats have read that book, ill have to try it myself

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 23, 2:54 pm

I've read several books by the 2009 Nobel laureate, Herta Müller, but this one has been sitting on my TBR since November 2016, which makes it the second-oldest resident there. Not for much longer, though:

Mein Vaterland war ein Apfelkern: ein Gespräch mit Angelika Klammer (2014) by Herta Müller (Germany, Romania, 1953- ), edited by Angelika Klammer (Austria, 1960- )


A book-length interview, based on discussions in 2013 and 2014, in which Angelika Klammer gets Müller to talk about her life, the context of her books, and her attitude to writing. Inevitably, there's a lot about her and her friends' experience of persecution by Ceaușescu's Securitate, but also about her mixed feelings about growing up as a member of Romania's German-speaking minority, with a father who had served voluntarily in the SS and a mother who survived a Soviet labour-camp.

She repeatedly emphasises that her conflict was with the corrupt, destructive and oppressive dictatorship of Ceaușescu, not with Romania, and several times she makes a point of digressing into talking about the beauties of the Romanian language and how much she enjoyed learning it properly when she left her Banat-Swabian village to study in Timișoara. The way she wrote about her village, especially in her first book Niederungen (Nadirs), got her into trouble with the exiled Banat-Swabian community organisations in Germany (which she characterises here as being led by ex-Nazis and heavily infiltrated by the Securitate, so the row was obviously still going on in 2014...).

In the last couple of chapters she describes how she worked together with poet and Gulag-veteran Oskar Pastior on her last major novel, Atemschaukel (The hunger angel) and the difficulties of going from his very personal testimony about the labour camp to a work of fiction, and she also gives us a lively account of her process for creating her collage-poems — she has a filing cabinet with over 100,000 cut-out words to play with. The title of this book, "My fatherland was an apple-core", comes from one of her absurd rhymes.

Herta Müller is always worth reading, but this is a book you will probably find most interesting if you've read at least some of the books she is talking about and can get some idea of how the novel relates to the lived experience she is describing here.

helmikuu 23, 3:46 pm

>129 thorold: Very interesting review. Thanks. I read Muller's The Appointment several years back and thought it was extremely good.

helmikuu 24, 10:11 am

>129 thorold: Great review! I read Herztier years ago, but Atemschaukel is still waiting on my shelf.

helmikuu 25, 4:33 am

>130 rocketjk: >131 MissBrangwen: Atemschaukel is the main one I've still got to read. It's easy to get confused with Müller, because her English publishers seem to have completely different ideas about titles from the German ones.

Something completely different. This is a book I started reading in December and then put aside when I got distracted with Nobelists, the Baltic, and all the rest. It caught my eye in the first place because the Huygens family — like Spinoza — were almost neighbours of mine: I come past their country house, Hofwijck, in Voorburg, on my regular neighbourhood walk.

Dutch light : Christiaan Huygens and the making of science in Europe (2020) by Hugh Aldersey-Williams (UK, 1959- )


(Author photo by Helen May from )

This is a nice compact and very readable readable scientific biography of Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), a man who didn't leave a hugely visible footprint on the history of science — unless you're particularly interested in optics or horology you probably won't even remember his name — but was in fact one of the most important European scientists in the interval between Galileo and Newton, and, as Aldersey-Williams argues here, also played a key role in the development of scientific institutions and the modern, collaborative, empirical way of doing science.

It's interesting to see how there was a kind of window of opportunity for science in Northern Europe in the middle of the seventeenth century: the English were setting up the Royal Society, Colbert was trying to harness the power of science to the advancement of his bureaucratic state in France, and there was a lot of openness to cross-border co-operation. There was money for big experiments, and a general relaxation of religious control of ideas. It didn't last long, of course; by the mid-1680s the French had shut the door to Protestants and the English (under Dutch rule) had reverted to their usual opposition to any ideas from the other side of the Channel. But it was long enough for the leading European scientists to consolidate their own private networks and adapt to the new ways of working with rapid publication of new discoveries, replication of results and constructive discussion. It's astonishing, with hindsight, how someone like Christiaan could move around so freely between three countries that were at war with each other — in one or other combination — for quite a big chunk of his life.

As well as talking abut the general situation of seventeenth century Holland, France and Britain, Aldersey-Williams also takes care to put Christiaan in the context of his over-achieving family, especially his father the courtier, diplomat, composer, architect and poet Constantijn (1596-1687) and his brother the lens-grinder, diplomat and secretary to William III, Constantijn (1628-1697).
(The Huygens family included at least four generations of notable Christiaans and Constantijns, all of whom seem to have had major achievements in more than one field, so it soon gets confusing.)

The book is said to be aimed at "general readers", but you would need to know a certain amount about physics (at least high-school level) to get anything much out of it. It's well backed up with references and a generous bibliography.

helmikuu 25, 4:53 am

And a random Pinter play that turned up in the Little Library (complete with someone's acting notes in pencil...):

Betrayal (1978) by Harold Pinter (UK, 1930-2008)


A three-hander first performed in 1978, with Penelope Wilton, Michael Gambon and Daniel Massey appearing in Peter Hall's original NT production. Jerry and Robert are best friends who studied together, play squash together, and both ended up working as publishers. They are both married and have children, but Jerry has had a seven-year-long affair with Robert's wife Emma. In a sequence of short, ambiguous scenes full of fragmented dialogue that never quite means what it says, Pinter digs back in time to explore different meanings of "betrayal", with each stage that we dig back into the characters' memories revealing another level of their dishonesty to each other and to themselves.

About as serious a take as it's possible to have on the banal topic of bourgeois adultery.


Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 14, 9:53 am

>132 thorold: I did my walk around Voorburg this morning with the Huygens in mind — hard to avoid them, anyway, as the old town centre now markets itself as the "Huygenskwartier" and there are at least a dozen prominent public mentions of the name, plus the statue of Constantijn (sr.) and Christiaan (holding a model of the planet Saturn) outside Hofwijck, which is now a museum dedicated to the family.

The view from across the canal is just about the only way to see Hofwijck, the country retreat designed by Constantijn in the light of his reading of Vitruvius, as it was meant to be, without highway viaducts and office towers in the background.

If you're looking for Spinoza in the old part of Voorburg, on the other hand, it's slim pickings. The only public reference seems to be a small plaque on the wall in the back alley where he lived, which you would be very unlikely to find unless you were looking for it (the actual house was rebuilt at some point in the last 300 years). There are a Spinozalaan and a Spinozapark in the new part of Voorburg, though, with a rather generic statue that makes him look more like a gentle Franciscan than the most dangerous philosopher of his time.

ETA: I’d forgotten, but I was in Amsterdam last weekend and walked past it: the “real” Spinoza monument in the Netherlands is outside the Opera/City Hall, close to the Jewish Monument.

helmikuu 25, 1:11 pm

>132 thorold: >134 thorold: Very interesting, great review!

And we had that same glorious sunshine today. Wasn't it wonderful? I'm so ready for spring.

helmikuu 25, 4:56 pm

Christiaan Huygens was a looker too, this is not mentioned often enough. I had a crush on him as shown in Sagan's Cosmos. He also formulated, maybe for the first time, the basic modern scientific credo: knowledge is probabilistic, not certain.

He also proposed that ours was just one of many worlds. I have a first edition French translation I hardly dare open, but, soon, soon!

maaliskuu 3, 10:38 am

>136 LolaWalser: In the news yesterday there was something about how all Christiaan's telescopes were just slightly off perfect focus, which has led a researcher to conclude that he was a little bit myopic (which can, of course, be quite sexy in some people...). So he's still newsworthy, at any rate.

( seems to be the original paper)


Back to another of my inadequately read Nobel poets:

Spain in our hearts : hymn to the glories of the people at war = España en el corazón : himno a las glorias del pueblo en guerra (1938; parallel text 1973) by Pablo Neruda (Chile, 1904-1973), parallel translation by Donald D Walsh


When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Pablo Neruda was in Madrid, working as Chilean consul (his predecessor in the post was another poet and future Nobel laureate, Gabriela Mistral). Through the influence of friends like Federico García Lorca, he became a communist and was soon involved in the struggle on the Republican side.

Neruda's most famous contribution to the Republican cause was this short collection of poems about the war, most of them originally published in the soldiers' newspaper El mono azul in 1936 and 1937. The collection appeared in book form in Chile and France in 1938, but the most famous version was the November 1938 pamphlet produced in a limited edition for the armed forces in the renaissance print-shop of the former monastery of Montserrat, which was under Republican control at the time. As Neruda describes it in his memoirs, it was a highly romantic affair of self-taught comrades acting as typographers and shredding any rags they could find to make improvised paper. Sadly, the truth seems to have been a little more prosaic than that, but the myth reflects the quality of the book very well.

These are poems that really need to be declaimed in the open air, preferably standing on a captured enemy tank, or perhaps at the graveside of a fallen comrade. The tone is very exalted: there are invocations to solidarity and resistance, elegies for fallen soldiers and civilian casualties, tributes to the Mothers of Madrid, condemnations of the brutality of the Nationalist rebels, visualisations of what it will be like for Franco and his generals when they arrive in Hell, and so forth. In the middle of the book there is a tribute to pre-war Spain which ends in a fifty-line list of place-names.

It's propaganda, of course, and occasionally it goes too far (Neruda doesn't hesitate to play the racist card by repeatedly mentioning Franco's reliance on North African troops, "Moros"), but it's also transparently full of passion and straight from the heart in a time of crisis, and it's often very moving indeed. It struck me that there's a lot that would still work just as effectively if you replaced "Madrid" by "Kyiv" and "Franco" by "Putin".

maaliskuu 3, 11:29 am

Irish novelist Anne Enright is a contemporary I managed to overlook for a long time, until someone (probably a CR member but I forget who) advised me to read The Green Road a couple of years ago. I read two more of her novels shortly after that and enjoyed both. This is a short story collection from a bit earlier in her career.

Taking pictures (2008) by Anne Enright (Ireland, 1962- )


One of the blurbers on the back cover of this book says something about "the Dubliners of the new millennium", a thought which would be the kiss of death for most short story collections, (and a bit presumptuous when you are only seven years into that millennium, although the journalist in question won't be around in the year 3001 to answer for that, any more than we will to challenge it...). But Enright's short fiction might almost be tough enough to survive that sort of thing. These are stories about very ordinary things (birth, death, marriage, illness, parents, crazy college flatmates, ...) happening to very ordinary people, but they aren't in the least ordinary as stories.

There's only one in the book that looks a little like something you might write for a creative writing seminar — "What you want," where a cleaner at the opera house reflects on wishes and aspirations as she works — but even that manages to avoid the directions that stories of that kind are supposed to take. It's not about the contrast between her lowly position in life and her glamorous workplace (although it doesn't ignore that): it's a more general and very sympathetic working out of what the really important things missing from someone's life might be.

Enright is a clever story-teller, good at taking us inside the heads of her characters and getting us to see the world from their points of view. If I had to compare her with someone, I think Alice Munro might be a more obvious candidate than Joyce. Very enjoyable.


A puzzling choice of cover-art: either a twist on the ubiquitous "headless woman" theme by an art editor who hasn't read any further than the title, or an oblique take on Enright's view of the world that is a bit too subtle for us to work out? There's certainly no literal reference to photo-kiosks in the title-story or anywhere else in the book.

maaliskuu 7, 12:58 pm

And another Nobella, this time by the 1967 laureate, and I think my first book from Guatemala. I have El Señor Presidente on my e-reader as well, I'll get to it eventually.

El espejo de Lida Sal (1967; The mirror of Lida Sal) by Miguel Ángel Asturias (Guatemala, 1899-1974)


This collection of stories based on Mayan and Guatemalan traditions appeared in 1967, the same year that Asturias was awarded the Nobel. Although the underlying myths are pre-Columbian, most of the stories here are placed in a more contemporary context, the supernatural New World elements mingling with bits of Catholic, Spanish or African tradition: you can see why Asturias is often cited as a precursor of the "Latin American Boom".

The title story has a woman trying to capture the heart of the man she wants to marry by secretly putting on the costume that he is to wear at a coming festival. She comes to grief, Narcissus-style, when she goes to a river in the moonlight to look at her reflection in the splendid costume. The stories go on to look at heroes who challenge their prescribed destiny, origin myths, and myths about creative art, finishing with "Leyenda de la campana difunta", where Catholic/capitalist order comes into direct contact with American disturbing forces in a conflict about the founding of a bell, and the whirlwind duelling dance of "Leyenda de las Matachines", which is at one level a knife-fight between two gauchos over a woman and at another a complicated pattern of identity-shifting Mayan deities.

Not my usual sort of thing, and I don't know much about the background traditions, but all very interesting, and full of complicated, intense, poetic writing.

maaliskuu 8, 1:34 pm

>139 thorold: I did not know this book from Miguel Angel Asturias, and I must admit I never read short stories from him, although I own Leyendas de Guatemala. I really liked El Senor Presidente when I read it ages ago. His so-called Banana Trilogy is famous as well. I've only read the first book and liked it a lot (but I love books about how the agricultural system is organised in other countries, and realise it might not be everybody bup of tea).

maaliskuu 8, 5:07 pm

>140 raton-liseur: The intro to Lida Sal mentioned Leyendas de Guatemala. It sounds as if that, which was written in 1930, is more like straight retelling of myths, whilst the later one brings in the post-colonial cultural mix. I’ve started reading El Señor Presidente and am finding it quite rewarding so far, but both are a little bit hard going for me because of all the Guatemalan idioms and the way he shifts back and forth between realism and dream-sequences.

maaliskuu 9, 9:58 am

>123 thorold: Agreeing with your last paragraph on Kross. I've since also read Professor Martens' Departure, which I found somewhat annoying at times, but overall probably a better book.

>127 thorold: The first Kadare I read, the one which started me on trying to get all his works translated into English, although failing that I could try French. Although the translator for my edition is also not credited, some of his other books I've read were first translated into French from Albanian, and then the French edition was translated into English. I notice more recently there is a direct Albanian - English translation.

Have you read Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, an Albanian who writes in Italian.

maaliskuu 9, 10:54 am

>142 SassyLassy: On reflection, I wonder if some of what came over as pedantic insistence on historical evidence in Kross was simply to do with circumventing censorship. As long as he could cite chapter and verse from official Russian archives, they would have had a harder time accusing him of writing anti-Russian propaganda. I'm certainly open to reading more, and the library has about six of his novels (all in Dutch).

I'd forgotten, but in Is that a fish in your ear, David Bellos talks about his work (re-)translating Kadare from French to English, in consultation with the author and the Albanian-to-French translator. So I'm guessing he might've been the anonymous translator.

I read Sworn virgin a couple of years ago. I think that's the only non-Kadare Albanian book I've read, unless you count Memoir of the Bobotes.

maaliskuu 9, 1:27 pm

>141 thorold: I've had an interest in Guatemala since Rigoberta Menchu won the Peace Nobel Prize in 1992. I know very little about it and about the Mayan mythology, but am fascinated.
El espejo de Lida Sal sounds really interesting. I have a rule not to buy books by an author if I already own an unread book from him, but rules are meant to be bent.
Thanks for the review and for shedding light on this book I had never heard of.

maaliskuu 10, 5:03 pm

>144 raton-liseur: It doesn’t add anything to our limited stock of knowledge about Guatemala, but Lida Sal was one of the books I found by doing a search for “Nobel” in the ABE Books inventory of a seller I was buying something else from. I usually do an “other books from this seller” search because it can save shipping costs and has the bonus of coming up with books I didn’t know I needed…

Another recent bit of randomness: my old school has digitised all the school magazines back to the 1890s and put them on line, so some of my very earliest “publications” have now appeared on the internet. Potentially embarrassing, but fortunately I don’t think anyone is likely to find them by accident, and you’d have to be very bored to go looking for them. The most substantial is a sports piece(!), which amused me as I’ve just been reading Per Olov Enquist (more about him soon) talking about the tricky relationship between serious literature and sport. Not that my teenage efforts were on his level, of course, in either sport or writing. He was quite the high-jump champion in his time, apparently.

maaliskuu 12, 10:56 am

A Baltic book that caught my eye in the library. Maybe it's not the most obvious thing to read the autobiography of an author you only know from one novel (so far), but I did find The royal physician's visit very interesting. It's taken a little while to get through it, more because of minor distractions along the way than because it was a difficult read, I think. A lot more distractions to come in the next couple of months, too...

Een ander leven (2008; Ett annat liv / The wandering pine) by Per Olov Enquist (Sweden, 1934-2020) translated from Swedish to Dutch by Cora Polet


A third-person autobiography by the distinguished Swedish novelist and playwright. He talks about his literary career and the forces shaping his life, in particular his northern childhood and his struggle with alcoholism in the 1980s.

Enquist grew up with his widowed schoolteacher mother in a green-painted house in the remote village of Hjoggböle, near Bureå, about 1000km north of Stockholm. The village has produced a surprising number of celebrated writers: he puts this down to the effects of inbreeding, a practice that was sadly disappearing by his time, thanks to the introduction of the bicycle (a quip he frankly admits to having used in far too many interviews). The Enquist family belonged to a strict revivalist evangelical sect, and Per Olov was enrolled in the Swedish version of the Band of Hope as a small boy. He talks about the effect of growing up in the shadow of an elder brother, also Per Olov, who had died in infancy, and of his father, who died when Per Olov was six months old, leaving a last message exhorting the boy to grow up to be a Christian and a preacher. And of the frustration of not being allowed to go to the football matches that took place in the ungodly half of the village on Sundays.

And, of course, he went on to join in the radical left-wing student life of Uppsala around 1960, as well as becoming an athlete, a drama critic, a satirist and, later, a drinker. None of which would have gone down very well in Hjoggböle.

It reads like a frank and very open account of his life, full of self-criticism that varies in tone from amused to completely humiliated, but there is a lot of art about this as well: it's fairly obvious that there is a lot that he isn't choosing to tell us, and also that he makes quite sure we know all about his great successes as well. He tells us several times that he had only ever seen four plays before his paper made him a dramatic critic, but he also tells us that the play he cobbled together in a moment of inspiration after spending a term teaching American undergraduates about Strindberg was an overnight success. While he is telling us about his fiasco on Broadway, we also learn "by the way" about his close friendship with Ingmar Bergman. And so on.

The middle section of the book has a lot of detail and name-dropping about Swedish politics which is a bit dry for outsiders, but the childhood section and the last few chapters about his alcohol problems are very interesting reading for anyone, and there's also a lot along the way that lifts the curtain at least slightly on what it's like to be a writer who constantly faces the challenge to produce something new and meaningful out of his own inspiration. Very interesting.

maaliskuu 14, 6:50 am

After a period of slow reads, a quick dash through four English novels by another favourite contemporary. I've had Bournville on the TBR shelf for a couple of months, but decided to start by (re-)visiting the earlier members of Coe's loosely-linked Unrest sequence, which all have some (usually indirect) connection to the character Thomas Foley and his wife and children. The rain before it falls was a re-read from my own shelves, the other two I hadn't read before, and by some miracle were both in the library when I looked.

Expo 58 (2013) by Jonathan Coe‬ (UK, 1961- )
The rain before it falls (2007) by Jonathan Coe‬ (UK, 1961- )
Mr Wilder & Me (2020) by Jonathan Coe‬ (UK, 1961- )
Bournville (2022) by Jonathan Coe‬ (UK, 1961- )


Expo 58 has the young civil servant Thomas Foley being sent to Brussels for a few months to supervise the "British Pub" at the International Exposition in Heysel, only to find himself caught up in a Cold War spy-drama. London in the late fifties is filmed in gritty Ealing Studios black and white, a place of gripe-water, corn plasters and nappies on the washing-line, whilst Brussels is full of technicolour modern buildings and futuristic ideas. Thomas is seduced in more ways than one, and it starts to look as though his marriage may be in serious trouble.

Coe seems to have got a bit carried away by the excitement of the Expo: the story is fun, but it's not much more than an Ealing Comedy, really, and the book's centre of gravity is in the descriptions of the unreal world of fifties scientific optimism that the Expo was tapping into. And perhaps laying a foundation for Coe's later books about the odd British attitude to the mainland.

The rain before it falls is a serious novel about families and parenting and how they can go wrong. Thomas Foley's daughter Gill, the baby in Expo 58, is now the mother of two grown-up daughters. She finds herself winding up the affairs of her deceased lesbian aunt, Rosamond, who has left a legacy and a book-length taped message for Isobel, whom Gill met once as a seven-year-old at Rosamond's fiftieth birthday party, but now seems untraceable. Rosamond's message, a leisurely ramble through a series of family photos, explains her connection with Isobel, through multiple levels of family tragedy. A quiet and moving book.

Mr Wilder & Me is an extended essay about the film director Billy Wilder, masquerading as a novel about the experiences of a young Anglo-Greek musician, Calista Frangopoulou, who accidentally gets drawn into Wilder's entourage and finds herself working for him as an interpreter whilst he is filming Fedora on location in Greece in 1977. Her connection with Wilder comes about through Gill Foley, a British girl she has met whilst backpacking around the USA, and whose father worked with Wilder in London during the war. Wilder is charmed and amused by the two young girls who turn up for dinner in totally the wrong clothes and obviously not having a clue about movies or who he is...

It's all a bit contrived, especially when we realise that Calista's Greek background is only there to allow Wilder to make a Sherlock Holmes joke, but it's an affectionate and intelligent homage to a great director and to the end of an era in cinema, so why not?

Bournville, Coe's most recent novel, takes us back, as the title suggests, to the Birmingham of his Rotter's Club novels, and to the kind of ironic analysis of cultural values in post-war provincial Britain that he is best at. He follows the life of his central character, musician, mother and PE teacher Mary, through a series of "national landmarks" from VE Day in May 1945 through to Covid lockdown in May 2020. Mary is some sort of cousin of Sylvia Foley, and the Foley family and various characters from the Rotter's Club novels pop up on the peripheries of the story, but it's Mary and her children who are at the centre of the narrative. She's a strong and captivating character, whom Coe obviously cares deeply about. We don't really need his endnote to work out that he's writing about his own mother, but he assures us that the other characters are pure fiction, especially that irritating and incompetent tousled-haired old-Etonian Brussels reporter who improbably ends up running the country.

I felt that this was a very strong novel, with a good balance between story and historical background. But of course I'm reading it as someone who grew up at the same time as Coe and in a similar place, so he is putting his finger on a lot of things that have strong resonances for me. Especially the crass xenophobia of the WWII-obsessed atmosphere we grew up in during the sixties. Which started to dissolve a bit in the seventies, but came back with a vengeance after Thatcher came to power, and doesn't seem to have let off since. Coe's point seems to be that there's a specifically English way of avoiding serious engagement with the things that have gone wrong in our lives, echoed by the sheltered atmosphere of the Bournville planned community and by Mary's determined efforts to prevent family quarrels at the cost of allowing nastiness (specifically, her husband's intolerance to any kind of cultural or political difference) to continue indefinitely below the surface of family life.


My comment on the cover of The rain before it falls when I first read it:
Coe's publishers must have thought they were dreaming when they got this manuscript: possibly for the first and only time in publishing history, an author comes up with a book where a black-and-white photo of people in bathing-suits seen from behind actually plays an important role in the plot. So, naturally, Penguin chose a picture for the cover that subtly but unmistakably fails to match any of those described in the story...

The other covers are all fairly unobjectionable, although it's odd that they only got the Atomium on the back cover of Expo 58, not the front where it belongs.

The crass cheese solecism that almost undermines The rain before it falls is made up for by the lyrical hymn to Brie in Mr Wilder & Me.

maaliskuu 16, 10:45 am

A couple of short books: first one that caught my eye in the library the other day. I've read two or three of OUP's Very Short Introduction series, and found them all interesting and useful so far.

Spanish literature : a very short introduction (2010) by Jo Labanyi (UK, - )


(author photo: NYU)

Professor Labanyi gives us a rapid overview of Spanish literature — here meaning "literature from Spain", rather than "literature in Spanish" — in the usual forced-march style of these Very Short Introductions. Instead of a traditional chronological account, she chooses to divide things up under four big subject-headings.

Multilingualism and porous borders looks at the interplay between writings in Arabic, Basque, Castilian, Catalan and Galician from the Middle Ages to present-day regional autonomy, but also at the place of Spanish literature within the supranational medieval categories of Romance and Arabic literature, and makes it clear that all these categories are more fluid and less self-contained than we like to assume. Spanish literature and modernity looks at the political context of Spain from the Golden Age to the post-Franco period and how writers engaged with it. Gender and sexuality looks at writing by and about women and LGBT+ people, and finally Cultural patrimony goes in a slightly less predictable direction, investigating the Spanish approach to literary museums, shrines, and the ever-flourishing Cervantes-Industry.

Labanyi's chief field of interest seems to be in 20th century literature, so we get a lot more about Goytisolo (star of at least two chapters) than about Quevedo and Tirso de Molina, but she tells us enough about the 17th century to give us a reasonable feel for what to look out for, and she picks up some interesting topics like the importance of female-to-male cross-dressing on stage and the unexpectedly subversive nature of some of Teresa of Avila's writings.

Not the only book you'll need to read about Spanish literature, but it does what it's supposed to and it probably undermines a few preconceptions along the way too.

maaliskuu 16, 11:06 am

>148 thorold: That's a book bullet for me :-)

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 16, 11:14 am

And, since it's a Boekenweek and I haven't got the 2023 gift (yet...), here's the 2015 one that I happened to pick up in a Little Library yesterday. Flemish writer Dimitri Verhulst is best known for De helaasheid der dingen (The Misfortunates), which I read in 2011 and didn't really like very much.

De zomer hou je ook niet tegen (2015) by Dimitri Verhulst (Belgium, 1972- )


Sixty-something composer Pierre is heading down the autoroute to Avignon with the severely-handicapped teenager Sonny, whom he's abducted from the care-home where he lives. His quixotic mission seems to be to mark Sonny's 16th birthday by taking him to the top of a hill in Provence to tell him the story of his origins, tied up with the location and with the unhappy love-story of Pierre and Sonny's mother.

There's no real evidence that Sonny is in any way able to understand or respond to what he's being told, so the novella is very much a reflective monologue by Pierre, switching from time to time between first and third person. He takes apart the history of his own dysfunctional private life whilst idolising that of Sonny's mother, and we start to see how the love and empathy that he failed to express properly in earlier relationships is now all being projected, clumsily, onto the surrogate infant Sonny.

An uncomfortable story in lots of ways, but you could call it a kind of Belgian/Provençal Of mice and men, perhaps...


Professor Labanyi (>148 thorold:) wouldn't approve of the romantic way I used "quixotic" there, I fear. Never mind, you know what I mean.

I liked the Dickensian (ooh-er, another slippery adjective!) cover painting (by Jean Rustin), anyway.

maaliskuu 16, 11:17 am

>149 Dilara86: Yes, I'm tempted now to get my own copy too, there are a lot of names of writers there that I want to check out.

maaliskuu 16, 4:06 pm

>148 thorold: that looks fascinating. Immore interested in earlier times, but I'd like to check it out it

maaliskuu 16, 5:39 pm

>150 thorold: I enjoyed Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill, I should try something else by him.

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 17, 7:00 pm

Viestin kirjoittaja on poistanut viestin.

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 17, 12:08 pm

...and now I have got a copy of the 2023 Boekenweek gift. This one is by a young Flemish writer, Lize Spit, who is new to me but has a couple of published novels to her credit. Her first novel (Het smelt/ The melting, 2016) was a big success and has been translated to English.

De eerlijke vinder (2023) by Lize Spit (Belgium, 1988- )


It's the summer of 1998, and a family of refugees from Kosovo have arrived in a small Flemish village after facing many difficulties and dangers. The village mostly enjoys the novelty of having the Ibrahamis living among them, and it's especially good for Jimmy, a lonely child whose life up to now has mainly centred around collecting Flippos out of potato crisp packets: he finds a new purpose in helping his exotic classmate Tristan to find his feet in the school system and Belgian culture. But then the news comes that the family's application for asylum has been rejected. The children come up with a plan to resist deportation.

There's a hard core of the grim realities of war and refugee life under the surface of what initially looks like a cosy village story. Lize Spit obviously knows exactly what she's doing as she doses these elements. And she seems to be suspiciously well-informed about the world of Flippo-collecting...

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 20, 1:08 pm

I noticed that the library had Jenny Erpenbeck's most recent novel and added it to my pile...

Kairos (2021) by Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany, 1967- )


The last years of the DDR, seen through — or reflected in — a doomed love-affair between the East Berlin student Katharina and the much older novelist and broadcaster Hans. She's from the generation that grew up in the Pioneers and the FDJ and had never experienced anything other than the socialist state; he still has childhood memories of the horrors of the Third Reich, of which his parents had been active supporters.

Erpenbeck weaves her material together cleverly, setting up all sorts of parallels for us between the personal and political events and our ways of looking back at them. There's a lot of play with the physical documents that make up Hans and Katharina's story and the corresponding papers Katharina later finds in the Stasi archive, as well as with the physical traces of recent history in the landscape of Berlin. Decidedly not your usual sort of love-story. And there's a great sound-track, from Mozart's Requiem to Hanns Eisler and Wolf Biermann. Very interesting.

maaliskuu 20, 3:31 pm

Kairos will be published in English translation in the US in early June. Jenny Erpenbeck is one of my favorite writers, so I'm glad that you liked this book, Mark.

maaliskuu 21, 2:28 pm

>157 kidzdoc: Great! Thanks for that, Darryl. I'm sure it will be worth waiting for the translation.

Another Nobelist I've read too little of:

In dubious battle (1936) by John Steinbeck (USA, 1902-1968)


This was Steinbeck's first serious contemporary novel, published shortly after Tortilla Flat. It's the story of a strike by seasonal apple-pickers trying to reverse a pay-cut, and a painful analysis of the impossible task faced by ordinary workers taking on a well-organised (and unscrupulous) establishment, egged on by equally unscrupulous communists who know that glorious failure will have as powerful a propaganda effect as success.

It's perhaps all a bit too romantic, and there's a lot in the text, especially the dialogue, that feels unnecessarily didactic at this distance, but the storyline remains gripping, and we can't help being drawn into sympathy for all the people who get hurt in the course of the book. And any novel that draws on a Milton quotation must have something going for it...

maaliskuu 21, 2:36 pm

egged on by equally unscrupulous communists who know that glorious failure will have as powerful a propaganda effect as success.

It makes no sense whatsoever, but it spins, it spins!

maaliskuu 23, 4:50 pm

>159 LolaWalser: Quite. Steinbeck seems to have got quite a lot of stick from the left at the time for his slightly odd ideas of what communists actually wanted to achieve.

Another little dipping of the feet into the work of a Nobel laureate who deserves rather more attention than this:

How to start writing (and when to stop) : advice for writers (2000; English 2021) by Wisława Szymborska (Poland, 1923-2012), edited by Teresa Walas, translated from Polish to English by Clare Cavanagh


To Baska:
"My boyfriend says I'm too pretty to be a good poet. What do you think of the poems I sent?" We think you must be really pretty.

Wisława Szymborska was on the editorial board of the Krakow-based Literary life magazine for nearly thirty years. For a large part of that time (1968-1981) she was writing a column in which the editors responded with "helpful" advice to poems and stories sent in by beginning writers: this book contains a selection of her pithy and often very funny replies. Some are quite constructive, drawing attention to the kind of basic errors almost everyone makes when starting out, like not submitting copy in legible form, trying to write in outdated styles, or getting tangled up in metaphors. But she can also be pretty merciless when she's riled by silly claims in covering letters, egregious errors of spelling and grammar, writers who haven't spent enough time reviewing and rewriting, or writers who take on subjects they haven't bothered to research properly. Those can expect to be demolished in a few witty sentences.

Her theory seems to be that any real writer will bounce back from this sort of treatment, perhaps having learnt something, and if she manages to divert a few dilettantes into a less demanding hobby, so much the better. Maybe not an approach that would go down well in a modern Creative Writing class, but it has its merits, and it must have been fun for spectators.

maaliskuu 24, 12:47 pm

Poor Baska...

I wasn't grabbed by Szymborska's poetry, what I read so far.

Constructive criticism is terribly hard.

maaliskuu 25, 10:32 am

And back quite a long way, to the 1910 Nobel laureate. Two short stories served up in a convenient Reclam Nobella format...

L'Arrabbiata / Das Mädchen von Treppi (1854/1858; this edition 1969) by Paul Heyse (Germany, 1830-1914)


Paul Heyse, who was awarded the Nobel in 1910 at the age of eighty, was a prolific writer of German short stories, also known for his work in collecting and translating Spanish and Italian lyrics (set by people like Robert Schumann and Hugo Wolf). He was associated with writers like Fontane and Storm in the "Tunnel" group in post-1848 Berlin.

"L'Arrabbiata" (1854) is one of Heyse's most famous early stories, the pared-down tale of a wilful girl from Sorrento who has sworn off men after seeing the disaster of her parents' marriage, but who is nonetheless courted by the lovely boatman Antonino, with predictable results. "The girl of Treppi" (1858) is another story about a couple who seem fated never both to be attracted to each other at the same moment: the activist lawyer Filippo, on the run from political oppression, finds himself hiding out in a country inn kept by a woman he had attempted to seduce seven years earlier. She has apparently been pining for him ever since, whilst he has forgotten all about her. Trouble ensues.

Both stories are set in an idealised, operatic kind of Italy, but they have interesting ways of exploring the conflict between our desire to lead independent, self-determined lives and our desire to tie ourselves up in another person's life. The Reclam student edition also comes with a couple of interesting excerpts from essays in which Heyse writes about the history and theory of the short story form.

maaliskuu 25, 12:23 pm

interested in this but cant find an english translation. Suggestions?

maaliskuu 25, 12:56 pm

>163 cindydavid4: Gutenberg has some 19th century English versions by someone called Mary E Wilson, e.g. (Arrabiata with only one “b”!)— but you need to put up with a lot of Walter Scott-ish “yonder”, “whither” and “maiden” stuff. On a quick look I didn’t see any modern translations of Heyse either.

maaliskuu 25, 3:55 pm

ok thanks

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 26, 5:14 am

An early novel by Anne Enright (>138 thorold: above):

The pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002) by Anne Enright (Ireland, 1962- )


This feels oddly like the book Graham Greene would have written had he been Irish and female: an historical novel about Eliza Lynch (1833-186), the Irish-born Paris courtesan who went off to Paraguay in the 1850s as the mistress of Francisco Solano López, son and eventual successor of the president. Enright doesn't try to represent Lynch's complete life-story, but depicts her by focussing on her 1854 nightmarish journey up-river to Asunción in the steamship Tacuarí, when she was expecting her first child with López, and on the events surrounding the battle of Cerro Corá in 1870, when López was deposed and killed. The viewpoint alternates between Lynch herself and the alcoholic Scottish physician Stewart (what could be more Greene?).

The book does its best to rehabilitate Lynch, who has often been treated unkindly by history (to the extent that she is sometimes blamed for provoking the war). In Enright's treatment she is simply a woman who has had a hard early life and is now trying to make the best life she can for herself in the strange world she has strayed into. I'm not sure if I was completely convinced. There seems to be a lot about Lynch that Enright isn't discussing. But it's an entertaining, exotic story about an unusual historical figure I didn't know about.

Eliza Lynch (Wikipedia)

maaliskuu 26, 12:29 pm

>166 thorold: An odd subject for a book, but its interesting to tread these byways of history.

maaliskuu 26, 12:40 pm

>166 thorold: I think you're right with ...oddly like the book Graham Greene would have written had he been Irish and female, which is a great image in itself. I remember thinking after reading it that I should follow up on her, but didn't have much luck.

maaliskuu 26, 12:43 pm

Enjoyed catching up on your reviews. Back to Jonathan Coe - he's a writer I continually go past on the bookshelves for no good reason whatsoever. I think I don't really know what to expect from his writing. Is there anyone you'd put him in the same bucket as?

maaliskuu 26, 3:08 pm

>169 AlisonY: Is there anyone you'd put him in the same bucket as?
Hard to think of anyone obvious: in some ways he's rather generic, in other ways quite specific...
He's quite focussed on exploring the social/cultural history of provincial England, especially the West Midlands, since the 1950s, from a soft-left political perspective. He's interested in experimental writing (B S Johnson is his big hero), but doesn't seem to practice it much. I went to a Brexit-themed reading (!) a few years ago in Brussels where he was back to back with Ali Smith, and that worked very well, although their styles don't have a lot in common.

maaliskuu 26, 3:15 pm

>170 thorold: Interesting - thanks. I'll have to give him a go.

maaliskuu 26, 3:31 pm

Another "Nobella"...

For the living and the dead : poems and a memoir (1995) by Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden, 1931-2015), edited by Daniel Halpern and translated from Swedish by a whole bunch of poets


This is a small selection from Tranströmer's lyric verse, in translations selected by editor Daniel Halpern from among the numerous English versions available, sandwiching the poet's childhood memoir "Memories look at me".

I enjoyed the memoir, where Tranströmer writes about growing up in Stockholm before and during World War II and going to the Södra Latin Grammar School (which featured in an Ingmar Bergman film). But it was difficult to get a grasp of the poems, possibly because of the profusion of different translators involved.

One or two appealed to me at first reading — "Grief Gondola No.2", for instance, a poem about Liszt and Wagner in Venice (but it's weird seeing the title of Liszt's piece translated into English when it's normally left in Italian); "Motifs from the Middle Ages"; and the "Vermeer" poem that ends the selection. Others left me baffled with their incongruous or surreal images and leaps of subject. Perhaps he's a poet you need to read in the original, but I didn't really see anything in this selection that would have made me go out and learn a bit more Swedish. At best it seemed good, but not earth-shattering.

maaliskuu 29, 12:06 pm

Another famous Swedish writer...

Oorlogsdagboek 1939-1945 (2015; Krigsdagböcker 1939-1945 / A world gone mad) by Astrid Lindgren (Sweden, 1907-2002), edited by Kerstin Ekman, translated from Swedish to Dutch by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiesen


Astrid Lindgren was a 32-year-old mother of two young children when the Second World War broke out, with a secretarial background and no very obvious signs that she would soon become a world-famous children's writer. But in September 1939 she did take up the slightly eccentric habit of keeping a diary dedicated to world events and her reaction to them, with her personal life and that of her family relegated to the margins. It was only after her death that the stack of wartime diaries came to light, stuffed with press cuttings and copies of interesting letters she came across in her war-work for the (secret) postal censorship office.

The diaries are a fascinating record of what the war looked like to an ordinary person reading the news in neutral Sweden — albeit one who read the news very carefully and was able to form a pretty good idea of the things she wasn't being told. It rather undermines our image of ourselves as a new-hungry generation. With only (local) newspapers and radio to fall back on, Lindgren knew a surprising amount about what was going on. And she had a huge amount of sympathy for the people it was happening to (especially in Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Baltic states) and a clear sense of how privileged she was to be living in the one place in Northern Europe that managed to stay out of the conflict. It was also fascinating to discover how the Pippi Longstocking stories emerged against the background of all the grief and destruction that was going on around her.

maaliskuu 30, 1:02 am

>166 thorold: There’s another fictionalized story of Lynch - The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck. I read it years ago and wasn’t fond of it. Think I’ll try the Enright.

maaliskuu 30, 2:08 am

>174 dianeham: The wiki page for Lynch lists four biographies and four novels — Tuck and Enright plus William Edmund Barrett, Woman on Horseback (1938) and Graham Shelby, Demand the Wind (1990).
Tämä viestiketju jatkuu täällä: thorold discovers no labour-saving machine in Q2 23.