April 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: The Red Notebook
Author: Antoine Laurain
Translator: Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken
Publisher: Gallic Books, London (2015)
ISBN: 978 19083 1 3867
Antoine Laurain writes perfectly pleasant novels. And his latest, The Red Notebook, sticks to that amiable formula which seems to have brought him some success in the past. The President’s Hat was the story of a man who mistakenly switches hats with French President François Mitterrand. It changes his life. And then he, too, loses the hat. The books is structured around his frantic search to find it again. The hat passes through a string of characters – changing all their lives for the better during the period they posses it – before eventually, serendipitously, finding its way back to Mitterand. None of the characters are in any way disagreeable, though one is interestingly curmudgeonly. Even Mitterand is portrayed as genial and sympathetic, appearing like a benevolent fairy godfather in the final chapters.
The Red Notebook takes its name from another lost object. A woman is mugged and her purse left behind by the assailant on top of a trash bin. Laurent Letellier, a divorced middle-aged bookseller, finds the bag and goes through the contents looking for information that will help him to return it to the proper owner. Instead he discovers a red notebook and very little else. He becomes intrigued by the women who recorded her thoughts on the pages (obsession would be too powerful an emotion for a Laurain character). He sets out to find her. In the place of Mitterand, the French poet Modiano steps in to provide a cameo appearance. Modiano is remarkably accommodating when Laurent approaches him in the park, having discovered a link between the poet and the notebook’s owner.
Antoine Laurain writes characters well. The protagonist, Lettelier, is attractively disheveled. His teen daughter spoiled, but wonderfully vibrant. The heroine a brooding version of Juliette Binoche. Even the employees at Lettelier’s bookshop are convincingly realized. And I desperately would like to believe that Modiano is exactly as Laurain portrays him – engaging, wise and utterly, delightfully pleasant.
At their best Laurain’s books and characters remind me of a sitcom. Because everyone likes sitcoms. I could also compare The Red Notebook to a Rom-Com starring Meg Ryan & Tom Hanks. Or a less successful version of Laurence Cossé ‘s A Novel Bookstore. Or even one of Alexander McCall Smith’s many, many books – without the mystery and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.
Therein lies the rub.
The Red Notebook (and The President’s Hat, for that matter) relies heavily on character and formula, without injecting any real conflict or originality into the narrative. It reminds me of too many other things: other books, films, television shows. But I can’t imagine three months from now saying – this (story or thing) reminds me of an Antoine Laurain novel. They, the books, lack the qualities which make a story memorable. Which is the problem that comes with pleasant.
March 31, 2015 § Leave a comment
The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, translated by Linda Coverdale and published by Penguin Books, features Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. A Parisian detective who starred in an impressive seventy-five novels & twenty-eight short stories. Of the three Simenon books I’m reviewing The Hanged Man… is the most conventional – being a fairly straight forward detective novel. In it the off-duty Inspector Maigret spots a suspicious looking man at the train station and decides, seemingly on a whim, to follow him. He goes so far as to switch suitcases (“the kind sold in any cheap store, made of cardboard treated to look like leather”), board the same train and check into an adjoining room at the same seedy boarding house. Maigret watches through a keyhole as the man opens the suitcase, realizes it isn’t his and hurries off to find it.
He rushed back to the station, losing his way, asking for directions ten times, blurting out over and over in such a strong accent that he could barely be understood: ‘Bahnhof?’
He was so upset that, to make himself better understood, he imitated the sound of a train!
He reached the station. He wandered in the vast hall, spotted a pile of luggage somewhere and stole up to it like a thief to make sure that his suitcase wasn’t there.
And he gave a start whenever someone went by with the same kind of suitcase.
Unsuccessful, the man returns to his hotel room and the Inspector resumes his keyhole stakeout. Only to watch in horror as the man pulls out a revolver and shoots himself in the head. Everything that follows is Maigret’s attempt to unravel why the man committed suicide – for which he understandably feels a measure of guilt. Beginning his investigation with almost no information (an old, blood-stained suit and a false id) he sets off on a madcap chase, following the rapidly fading trail of a decade old murder from city to city, person to person – in a race against someone determined on making all the evidence disappear.
The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien is fast-paced and engrossing; written in short, choppy paragraphs and containing lots of dialogue. The kind of book you read in one sitting. Perhaps more shocking than the denouement is the discovery that the crime on which the novel’s plot hinges was based on an event from Simeon’s own life.
The President, translated by Daphne Woodward and published as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, is (again) entirely different. An aging French Premier – said to be based on Clemenceau – has retired to the Normandy coast. He is one of the “five great men” of his generation, but at 82 the only one left for him to engage in battle is Death. Until his final days are livened up by an unexpected and unhoped for diversion. Someone has been rifling through his personal effects. This is the story of a man whose mind has lost none of its acuity but whose body betrays him. And as the plot progresses it becomes clear that the mystery is less about who is searching than what has been hidden and why. The Premier is guarding a piece of paper that could topple the new French government.
“At forty years old, or at fifty, he had still believed himself to be a good judge of men, and would pronounce his verdicts without hesitation or remorse. At the age of sixty he had already been less sure of himself, and now he did no more than grope in the dark for momentary truths.”
Simenon maintains a claustrophobic atmosphere throughout the novel, confining his hero in an isolated house and making him completely dependent on caretakers. For a good portion of the story a storm rages outside and the power is out. Radio broadcasts report the news from Paris, also serving to spark the Premier’s memories. It is his last remaining link to the world he once dominated. Does he still? Should he still?
Three books, three different premises, conjuring three entirely different moods. Thus is the genius of Georges Simenon. He is the rare mystery writer who doesn’t merely assemble a puzzle for his readers, he also dictates the psychology by which it must be solved. These mysteries – the tones of the stories and the perspectives of the characters – are so different that it’s hard to believe that they were written by the same man. Yet despite each book having a different translator the writing style remains consistent and consistently good from one to another. The dialogue rings true. There’s the right balance of description and action. Beautiful phrases like “Today the dawn was colorless, sketched with white gouache and charcoal, and only the whiter glow of the thickening fog showed that the light was strengthening” are more striking because they are scarce.
It’s amazing, really, when you think about it. The author of almost two hundred books avoids the formulaic.
Gore Vidal once said in an interview that he used to be a famous novelist. But the category, he claimed, no longer existed. Perhaps that’s as much the fault of the novelists as the readers. Today publishers demand writers engage with readers on social media, but no one seems to demand that they be interesting. Newspapers – once a finishing school for writers – are disappearing. Journalists – adrenaline junkies trained on how to spin a story – are going the way of the dodo. Over the weekend I got into a brief discussion on the value of MFA programs. They are everywhere these days, blanketing the literary landscape like Kudzu vine. But does theory really trump experience in the making of better writers?
The old saying goes “write what you know”. That seems to have worked out amazingly well for Georges Simenon and his contemporaries – men and women who made it their mission to have something worth writing about.
March 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: The Strangers In the House
Translator: Geoffrey Sainsbury, with revisions by David Watson & others
Publisher: New York Review Books, New York
ISBN: 978 1 59017 194 3
Title: The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien
Translator: Linda Coverdale
Publisher: Penguin Books, London
ISBN: 978 0 141 39345 2
Title: The President
Translator: Daphne Woodward
Publisher: Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn
ISBN: 978 1 935554 62 2
Remember when being a writer was a glamorous business? Bloomsbury, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Gide, the Algonquin Round Table, Kingsley Amis, the Surrealists & Oulipo, the Beats… in between the books they had affairs, friendships & fallings-out, drowned in cascades of alcohol, found time to create intellectual movements and still attend wild parties. Even Salinger, who publicly claimed to stop writing books, managed to make moving to New England and refusing to talk to anyone seem interesting. These days, only Kardashians get to be glamorous. The world has changed.
Example: The most exciting thing on Jonathan Franzen’s Wikipedia page is the theft of his eyeglasses.
Georges Simenon was one of those writers who knew how to live. Belgian, born 1902, he began his career as a journalist. He associated with artists and anarchists, met at least two future murderers, eventually married and moved to Paris with his wife, Tigy. There, he became a familiar feature at the city’s nightclubs – rumored to have had an affair with Josephine Baker. After discovering on assignment that he enjoyed boating he had one built and moved his family on board. He corresponded with Gide and Henry Miller. Throughout his life he traveled the world – sending back reports to the newspapers. During WW2 he was both suspected of being Jewish by the Gestapo and accused of being a Nazi collaborator by his neighbors. Which may or may not have prompted his move to America for 10 years (supposedly to avoid questioning). He had affairs with not one, but two housekeepers. His wife left him only after finding out about the second one (the first, called Boule, traveled with the couple for years as a member of the family even after her ongoing affair with Simenon was discovered). His daughter tragically committed suicide at the age of 25. He eventually died in Switzerland in 1988 at the age of 86. And all the while he found the time to write – often under pseudonyms – almost 200 novels and numerous shorter pieces.
Now that’s a Wikipedia page!
Have you read Simenon? Faulkner, Camus, P.D. James, Muriel Spark, Peter Ackroyd, Anita Brookner, John Banville and John Le Carre have. To name a few. They are/were all fans. Ostensibly, he wrote mysteries and thrillers, but a different variety of mystery and thriller than modern readers are used to. His books were written in a time before every killer was a sociopath and every crime scene was staged like an art installation.
The Strangers In the House, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury and published by New York Review Books, features a hero whose physical appearance is among the most repulsive in the history of mystery writing. Hector Loursat comes from an old, well-respected and wealthy family. Reclusive, misanthropic, alcoholic – eighteen years before the events in the book his wife ran off with her lover leaving behind their two-year old daughter. A child Loursat suspects might not be his. In response he has sequestered himself to three rooms of the family mansion and allowed the remaining structure to disintegrate around him. He has been known to sporadically leave the haze of cigarette smoke, burgundy and filth in which he exists to practice the law. Loursat is a bit of a legend in the courtrooms of Moulins. Considered brutally intelligent and a keen judge of human nature – a great lawyer when he chooses to put on his robes. But that is seldom and his long isolation has made him uncomfortable and unable to interact meaningfully with those around him. Until he discovers a dead man in an upstairs room of the house.
‘… He said it again: “He must be dead.”
And then, more naturally: “Who is he?”
He wasn’t drunk. As a matter of fact he never was, whatever people might say. As the day wore on, his whole being seemed to become rather ponderous, his head especially, and his thoughts lost their outlines. They were strung together by a thread that was not that of everyday logic. Sometimes he would come out with a few words grunted under his breath, the only indications of what was going on inside his head.
Nicole gazed at him in a sort of stupor, as though the extraordinary thing that night was not the revolver shot, the lamp left burning on the second floor, the stranger dying in the bed, but this man, her father, who stood there before her calm and weighty.’
It’s difficult to decide whether it was the body or learning that a group of young people (among them his daughter) have been using his home as a a meeting place for months without his being aware – but the circumstances result in his immersing himself in the world again. Enough, at least, to take on the defense of his daughter’s young lover. The story of the murder unfolds slowly and methodically. These days we forget that most murders are committed for fairly mundane reasons and are solved through plodding investigation. That most murderers are not serial killers or criminal masterminds. Loursat is no Sherlock Holmes. He questions everyone who might have information on what took place in the days leading up to the murder and pieces together the story of what happened from the information he gleans. The Strangers In the House is an honest, if cynical, examination of the way human relationships work. And when it’s over you are sad. Sad because you’ve finished the only novel Simenon wrote featuring Hector Loursat – a hero you will find yourself wanting more of.
This seems to be a hallmark of Simenon’s novels (or at least the three I’ve read). Heroes who are men of gravity and weight (both literally and figuratively); men closer to the end of their lives than the beginning. Who, despite their outward similarities, live vastly different lives and operate under very different psychologies.
*Part 2 of this review will be posted tomorrow.
The Turnip Princess & Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth (Maria Tatar, translator)
March 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: The Turnip Princess & Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales
Author: Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth
Translator: Maria Tatar
Publisher: Penguin Classics, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 0 14 310742 2
There was once a farmer, and he had two sons…
One day a prince lost his way in the woods…
A farmer had three sons…
Three young men, a tailor, a miller, and a soldier, found themselves lost in the woods one day…
A nobleman had three daughters, each more beautiful than the next…
This is how fairy tales begin. Not with “once upon a time”, but with individuals standing on an empty stage patiently waiting to be told what to do next. Because fairy tales are essentially about the completion of tasks, even when the hero or heroine has no idea what that might lead to. The underlying moral of most fairy tales is – do as you’re told and good things will follow.
Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth was a contemporary of the Brothers Grimm. Like them he collected folk tales, employing a scientific method and focusing on a specific region of Bavaria known as the Upper Palatinate. He used questionnaires and carefully recorded the dialect, customs and costumes of the people he interviewed. His work was much admired during his lifetime, but seems to have disappeared after his death. Until 2009 when Erika Eichenseer (a Bavarian author, storyteller & poet) discovered 500 unpublished works in a Bavarian archive.
The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales translates 72 of these newly discovered stories into English. The book divides them into six categories: Tales of Magic and Romance, Enchanted Animals, Otherworldly Creatures, Legends, Tall Tales and Anecdotes and Tales About Nature. And they are quite unlike anything you might have encountered in the past. Yes, there are some familiar themes – such as dancing princesses, a miniature child (“the size of a thumb”) and enchanted toads. But in Von Schönwerth’s versions the Prince is often the one who needs saving; soldiers carry guns, not swords; the toad is just as likely to be a Princess and even after the hero saves the day he doesn’t always get the girl.
What you realize as you read is how spare, fragmentary and contradictory these tales actually are. The Three-Legged Goats (found in Part 2: Enchanted Animals) begins –
“Three young men, a tailor, a miller, and a soldier, found themselves lost in the woods one day. It was growing dark, and they still could not find a way out. The tailor decided to climb to the top of a tree, and from there he could see a light in the distance. He started walking in that direction, without saying a word to his companions, until he reached a castle. The first room he entered had nothing in it but three-legged goats and cats. Some of the cats were playing the fiddle on the tables and benches; others were dancing to the tunes. The tailor was hungry, so he ate some food. Once he was done, he stuffed his pockets with good things to eat and went back to give some food to his companions. After the tailor returned, the miller also climbed the tree, saw the light, found the castle, and discovered everything the tailor had found.”
At this point the soldier follows in the footsteps of his two companions and the tailor and miller disappear – never to be mentioned again. The story goes on to tell how the soldier breaks the enchantment on the castle, marries the princess and then journeys home to tell his parents the good news. And where traditional fairy tales might end, this one is just getting started: his wife, discovering he is poor, spurns him. She disappears and the soldier is forced to search for her. While searching he encounters three thieves, from whom he steals three magical items. He uses these three items to find his princess and win her back. And even after all he has done the Princess still questions her father, the King, as to whether she should keep the soldier as her husband. “What should I do? Should I choose a new broom or take back the old one?”
The Three-Legged Goats, like many of the stories in this collection, appears to be a compilation of several fairy tales into one. Which makes sense when you consider that Von Schönwerth’s purpose when setting down these tales was to faithfully record the oral history of those he interviewed. These stories were transcribed in the telling – not copied from books. They changed and evolved over time. And so it’s not implausible that two or three may have eventually merged together and been condensed into one. Or that a story which began one way would end in another. This results in very different narratives than most of us are accustomed to.
Maria Tatar makes some interesting choices in her translation. Three soldiers, we are told, have “finished their tour of duty”. When a huntsman asks three giants if they are planning to free a princess, the giants growl “From her wealth, anyhow.” There are more guns mentioned than I remember in The Brothers Grimm. Von Schönwerth lived from 1810-1886, so the modernity of the language and references is not entirely misplaced. But it is definitely unexpected and at times jarring – which might have more to do with my expectations of what a fairy tale is than the quality of the translation.
Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang (of the Blue, Red & Green Fairybooks, etc.) and Walk Disney have – for better or worse – shaped most of our expectations of what a fairy tale should be. It is easy to forget that folk tales are just another form of folk art – and that folk art is primitive by definition. The stories in The Turnip Princess range from one to five pages in length, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for embellishment. But it is the stripped-down, primitive nature – the potential in these stories of what they can become – which makes this collection so exciting. Consider the literary impact of Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretel. The plots & characters have become archetypal. Their influence can be detected (whether overt or subtle) in many contemporary works of fiction. What, then, might a new generation of writers make of Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth’s stories? Of a girl who becomes a snake when her stepmother casts her into a lake? Or a Prince who is kidnapped by a mermaid? Or a beautiful maiden freed from a turnip? Erika Eichenseer’s discovery has created new possibilities… new opportunities.
February 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: Blood Brothers (original German title Youth on the Road to Berlin)
Author: Ernst Haffner
Translator: Michael Hofmann
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 15905 1704 8
Set during the waning days of the Weimar Republic, Blood Brothers was first published in 1932. Adolf Hitler will be appointed German Chancellor a year later. The economy, already being crushed under the weight of WWI reparation payments, will be devastated by the U.S. stock market crash of 1929. (The Weimar government had received huge loans from the United States and, when faced with their own financial crisis, the U.S. called those loans in). And by 1932 between five & six million Germans will be unemployed.
All over Germany, but particularly in the cities, boys & young men ranging from age 14-18 formed gangs in order to survive. In Berlin these gangs were surprisingly well organized – each holding a specific territory (divided into “Rings”) and conforming to a rigidly structured hierarchy led by a “Ring Bull”. This organization is only loosely hinted at by Haffner – he prefers to focus on the correlation between the youths and vagabonds. We are introduced to the Blood Brothers of the title as they stand in line at the welfare office. They’re not there for aid. They have no papers and if they’re caught by the authorities they’ll be sent to youth detention facilities until they come of age.
The eight boys were able to capture a whole bench and serenely oblivious to the numbers, they drop off to sleep. They’ve spent the whole endless winter’s night on the street. As so many times before: homeless. Always trudging on, always on the go. No chance of any shut-eye in this weather. Day-old remnants of snow, the occasional thin shower of sleet, everything nicely shaken up by a wind that makes the boys’ teeth chatter with cold. Eight boys, aged sixteen to nineteen. A few are veterans of borstals (detention centers). Two have parents somewhere in Germany. The odd one perhaps still has a father or mother someplace. Their birth and early infancy coincided with the war and the years after. From the moment they undertook their first uncertain steps, they were on their own. Father was at the Front or already listed missing. Mother was turning grenades, or coughing her lungs out a few grams at a time in explosives factories. The kids with their turnip bellies – not even potato bellies – were always out for something to eat in courtyards and streets. As they grew older, gangs of them went out stealing. Stealing to fill their bellies. Malignant little beasts.
The Blood Brothers are led by Jonny. A sympathetic and likeable character, in the early chapters he is shown taking care of his crew – spending what little money the gang has on food and a place where they can sleep unmolested. He organizes the boys – making sure they move around the city in pairs so as not to attract attention. At this point in the story their focus is on the basic necessities of survival and Jonny is more a protective big brother figure and less a criminal Fagin.
This will change as Jonny and the Blood Brothers, under the guidance of Jonny’s lieutenant Fred, discover the benefits of a criminal lifestyle. Only two members, Willi & Ludwig (who are, notably, sepearted from the gang when it begins organized pick-pocketing), remain unconvinced and determined to leave the gang. These two pairs of boys serve as moral contrasts – demonstrating the two paths available. The tone of the book, though, is not moralistic. Haffner doesn’t judge, instead he laments the society that allows these boys to slip though the cracks. Though “lament” may be too strong of a word. Blood Brothers is written in the odd, yet incredibly effective, style of a newsreel voice over. Or a YA novel. The gangs’ crimes range from prostitution & petty theft, to pick-pocketing and eventually breaking & entering – all described in a hearty narrative voice. I couldn’t get the word “sanitized” out of my mind. For example: Willi & Ludwig, out of desperation, sell themselves to two rich men. Men who, “Along with their silk-lined tuxes…stripped off their manners. What was left were two scrawny little men whose wallets allowed them to buy young healthy, if half-starved, boys”. The next morning when the boys wake the men are gone. ‘Details of the night just past swim into the boys’ consciousness. “Yuck!” says Ludwig. “Yes, it makes me feel sick. Never again…”‘ They then proceed to go out for breakfast and plan their future – the episode entirely forgotten.
There’s a lot to recommend Blood Brothers. It reads like a first hand account of the economic conditions in Germany that allowed the Nazi Party to come to power. For anyone interested in the Hitlerjugand and their counterparts, the Edelweiss Pirates (an underground youth movement that fought for the Allies) it has that added layer. In addition, Blood Brothers is extremely entertaining and easy to read. Haffner shows real empathy for these boys’ situation. There are elements of adventure, suspense and – perhaps most important – a sense of hope. Hope that these boys are victims of a broken system and not inherently bad. Despite the events that we know loom over Germany’s, and the boys’, future – events that Haffner had no knowledge of when writing the book – we are left incongruously hoping that everything will still work out.
*Very little is known about Ernst Haffner – some believe he was a social worker. A critic reviewing Blood Brothers at the time of its original publication refers to him as a journalist. We know that the book was critically and popularly successful when first published. That it was burned by the Nazis a year later and that Haffner & his publisher were called before the Cultural Ministry. That is where the trail ends. No picture exists. No record of whether he survived the war. The only reference I found of him was a chapter in a 1980 book (written in German) on the youth gangs: Wilde Cliquen : Szenen e. anderen Arbeiterjugendbewegung by Hellmut Lessing & Manfred Liebel and I’m not sure if it’s a excerpt from the novel or a separate article entirely.