The Institute by Vincent Bijlo
[London’s Holland Park Press specializes in making classic and contemporary Dutch literature available in English translation.]
Otto Iking is a resident at the Institute, a boarding school for the blind. He characterizes his fellow students firstly according to their smell – “foul soap,” “piss” or “grated Swiss cheese” – only later adding in details about their speech and habits. It’s a zany sort of place, powered by pranks and strange decisions. Some stand-out scenes include hiding Harry’s glass eyes and a visit from the president of Surinam, a former Dutch colony. The slapstick humor works well (“When I walked into a lamppost, I said sorry. When I struck my head against a traffic sign, I said sorry. No one has ever apologised to street furniture as often as I did”), but some humor translates less well, seeming cruel or even offensive (“Tony was fat and deaf and black-skinned”).
Alongside the silliness is the matter of Otto’s coming of age. He has the first inklings of what sex is about and falls for Sonja, and also undergoes training to prepare him for the real world, things like reading and writing Braille, preparing and eating tricky meals (soup’s a killer). One day he hopes to go to a mainstream school and broadcast radio programs. The institutional setting and quirky cast reminded me of The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old and Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle.
The Institute, originally from 1998, was published on April 27th. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Ridder. My thanks to Bernadette Jansen op de Haar for sending a free copy for review.
This is the first of three Otto Iking novels. Vincent Bijlo, a Dutch stand-up comedian, was born blind.
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
[Peirene Press issues its translated European novellas in trios. This is the final installment in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first two, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch and The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay.]
I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel narrated by a homeless person before. Gabriela von Haßlau has a noble name and a solid upper-middle-class background – her father was a surgeon and chief medical officer specializing in varicose veins; her mother was trained as a radiographer before becoming a housewife and society hostess – but her life took a turn for the worse at some point and she now lives in an encampment under a canal bridge in the town of Leibnitz (a fictional stand-in for Leipzig).
It’s July 1994 and she decides to write her life story on whatever scraps of paper she can get her hands on. She remembers being forced to play the violin as a child even though she was largely unmusical, enduring mockery at school for being one of the intelligentsia, playing hooky with her best friend Katka, and failing at a mechanical engineering apprenticeship. The narrative toggles between Gabriela’s memories and her present situation: getting blankets and food from a shelter and trying to avoid being sent to the mental hospital.
My unfamiliarity with German history, especially that relating to East Germany and reunification, means I probably missed some nuances of the plot; I found the ending quite sudden. What was most worthwhile about the book for me was experiencing homelessness with Gabriela and tracing some of the unfortunate events that led her to this situation. It’s also interesting to see how she shapes her life story in scenes and streams of consciousness.
Dance by the Canal, originally from 1994, was published on July 3rd. Translated from the German by Jen Calleja. With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Hair Everywhere by Tea Tulić
[London’s Istros Books specializes in Balkans and South-Eastern European literature in translation.]
How could I resist such a terrific title and cover image? This was Croatian novelist Tea Tulić’s first book. In brief, titled vignettes almost like flash fiction stories, she dramatizes how a cancer diagnosis affects three generations of women. The book is strong on place, sensual detail and scene-setting. The narrator’s mother is in the hospital, and all the specialists and medicinal plant extracts in the world don’t seem to be helping. In such a restrictive narrative format, a line or two of dialogue can reveal a lot about a character’s attitude. The grandmother is a weary pessimist – “I just need to help your mother get through this and then I can die” – while the narrator is quite the hypochondriac.
The tone ranges from poignant to cynical, as in the absurd two-page sequence in which the family cannot locate an on-duty doctor who can read the latest X-ray results for them. The deadpan language and mixture of black humor and pathos reminded me of Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savičevi, which coincidentally is the only other Croatian novel I’ve encountered, and was originally published in the same year, 2011.
A few favorite lines:
“One little cloud was urinating.”
“While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.”
“Patrick Swayze” in its entirety: “My brother is angry because the doctors say they cannot help Mum. I tell him Patrick Swayze had lots of money but he still died of cancer.”
Hair Everywhere was published on May 22nd. Translated from the Croatian by Coral Petkovich. My thanks to Susan Curtis for sending a free copy for review – and to TJ at My Book Strings for making me aware of this title during Women in Translation Month.
With summer winding down, I decided it was time to read a couple of books with the word in the title to try to keep the season alive. These turned out to be charming, low-key English novels that I would recommend to fans of costume dramas. Both:
I knew very little about Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February when I picked it up in a charity shop. From the ads for the 2013 film adaptation with Dan Stevens, I had in mind that this was an obscure classic. It was actually published in 1995, but is inspired by real incidents spanning 1909 to 1949. It’s set among a group of Royal Academy-caliber artists in Lamorna, Cornwall, including Alfred Munnings, who went on to become the academy’s president.
The crisis comes when Munnings and Captain Gilbert Evans, a local land manager, fall for the same woman. A love triangle might not seem like a very original story idea, but I enjoyed this novel particularly for its Cornish setting (“From dawn to dusk it had rained non-stop, as only Cornwall can”; “The sea was slate grey and the sky streaky bacon”) and for the larger-than-life Munnings, who has a huge store of memorized poetry and is full of outspoken opinions. Two characters describe his contradictions thusly: “I can see he’s crude and loud and unpolished and Joey says he cuts his toenails at picnics but…”; “he’s one in a million, a breath of fresh air, and he’s frank and fearless, which is always a fine thing.” The title refers to the way that love can make any day feel like summer.
For more information on Munnings, see here.
For more information on Gilbert Evans, see here. (Beware the spoilers!)
From 1961, In a Summer Season was Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel. The ensemble cast is led by Kate Heron – newly remarried to Dermot, a man ten years her junior, after the death of her first husband – and made up of her family circle, a few members of the local community, and her best friend Dorothea’s widower and daughter, who return from living abroad about halfway through the book. Set in the London commuter belt, this is full of seemingly minor domestic dilemmas that together will completely overturn staid life before the end.
From Kate dyeing her hair yet being keen to avoid accusations of “mutton dressed as lamb” to her son Tom’s disgust at his grandfather’s ageing body, old age and wasting one’s time on trivialities are a twin paranoia here. The title is not only a literal note of when much of the action takes place, but also a metaphor for the fleeting nature of happiness (as well as life itself). Kate remembers pleasant days spent with her best friend and their young children: “It was a long summer’s afternoon and it stood for all the others now. There had been many. And she and Dorothea were together day after day. Their friendship was as light and warming as the summer’s air.”
So much happens in the last seven pages. I wished the book could have turned out differently, yet the conclusion effectively sews it all up, and all within a cozy 220 pages. If you enjoy writers like Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, you must try Elizabeth Taylor. Her work is similarly built around wry, perceptive observations about relationships and ways of life. This was my fourth novel by her, and I’d call it my second favorite so far after Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.
(Secondhand books are such good value: These two charity shop paperbacks cost me less than 85 pence in total. Such a low total spend per hour of enjoyment!)
This month I also read The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt (discussed here along with a few other recent reads). Earlier in the year I reviewed Ricarda Huch’s The Last Summer, and last year I reviewed the Summer anthology from the Wildlife Trusts. “Summer” turns up fairly frequently in titles of books I’ve read or want to read, in fact. Here’s the whole list!
Have you read any “Summer” books lately?
Larry Tremblay is a Francophone writer, theatre director and actor based in Montreal. In addition to three novels, he has published a short story collection and many books of poetry and plays. The Orange Grove (2013), which was longlisted for the 2017 International Dublin (formerly IMPAC) literary award, is the fable-like story of one family in the war-torn Middle East and the way notions of justice and sacrifice drive them to make extreme choices.
Tamara and Zahed live with their twin sons, nine-year-old Aziz and Ahmed, alongside an orange grove planted by Zahed’s father. Soulayed, a militant elder from the next village, describes it thus:
Your father, Mounir, worked his whole life on this arid soil. It was desert here. With God’s help your father worked a miracle. Made oranges grow where there had been only sand and stones.
When Mounir and his wife Shahina are killed in a bombing, Soulayed stands among the ruins and counsels Zahed to seek revenge against their enemies by sending one of his sons to be a suicide bomber. There’s no doubt Soulayed is manipulating this grief-stricken family to his own ends, but he isn’t solely to blame when their culture at large romanticizes martyrdom.
Zahed makes his choice, but Tamara won’t accept it. In a clever reprise of the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau, she helps the boys to make a switch right under their father’s nose. The last third of the book, like a coda, zooms ahead 11 years to show us the surviving brother, coming to the end of a four-year theatre training program in Montreal. He’s given a starring role in his teacher’s wartime play but the story line cuts a little too close to the bone, and for the first time he tells a stranger the story of two brothers: one who died and one who lived.
Peirene Press issues novellas in trios. This is the second in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch. Tremblay and Huch both tackle the theme of betrayal and the practice of choosing one person to die for the crimes of the many. The Orange Grove has a simple style that edges towards flatness but is saved by the occasional striking metaphor (e.g. “Minutes stretched out as if made of dough”). A book about suicide bombing could easily turn mawkish, but the restrained narration reins it in to create a tight and fairly engrossing tale of family ties and religious motivations.
[The third book in the series, Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, will be released later in 2017.]
The Orange Grove was published in the UK on May 1st. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. With thanks to James Tookey of Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Originally published in 1910, The Last Summer is a suspenseful epistolary novella by Ricarda Huch (1864–1947), one of the first German women to earn a PhD. She wrote widely across many fields – history, poetry, fiction, and religion – and had an asteroid named after her, earning Thomas Mann’s accolade of “the First Lady of Germany.” I’m grateful to Peirene for resurrecting this German classic as I have a special love for epistolary novels – traditionally told through nothing but letters. You have to be on the lookout for little clues dotted through the correspondence that will tell you who these characters are, how they’re connected to one another, what you need to know about their pasts, and what’s happening now.
Set across one May to August in the early 1900s, the book joins the von Rasimkara family at their summer home. In response to student protests, patriarch Yegor, the governor of St. Petersburg, has shut down the university and left for the country. With him are his wife, Lusinya; their three twenty-something children, Velya, Jessika and Katya; and Yegor’s new secretary-cum-bodyguard, Lyu. What the family don’t know, but readers do from the first letter onward, is that Lyu is in league with the student revolutionaries and is in on a plot to assassinate the governor at his summer home.
This central dramatic irony is what fuels much of the book’s tension. All of the von Rasimkaras persist in believing the best about Lyu, even when the evidence seems to point to his deception. Both daughters fall in love with him, Velya calls him their “guardian angel,” and Lusinya is sure of his loyalty even after odd incidents she can’t explain, like finding him standing in their bedroom doorway in the middle of the night and a mysterious letter appearing under her pillow. “In case of doubt, one ought to hold back with one’s judgement,” Lusinya opines.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a “psychological thriller,” as the back cover blurb does, but I do think it’s a compelling picture of how different groups and ideologies can be fundamentally incompatible. In my favorite passage, Lyu describes the von Rasimkara family to his friend Konstantin:
My stay here is fascinating from a psychological viewpoint. The family has all the virtues and defects of its class. Perhaps one cannot even talk of defects; they merely have the one: belonging to an era that must pass and standing in the way of one that is emerging. When a beautiful old tree has to be felled to make way for a railway line, it’s painful to watch; you stand beside it like an old friend, gazing admiringly and in grief until it comes down. It is undeniably a shame about the governor, who is a splendid example of his kind, but I believe that he has already passed his peak.
As I sometimes feel about novellas, the plot is fairly thin and easily could have been spun out to fill a book of twice the length or more. But that is not what Peirene Press books are about. They’re meant to be quick reads that introduce European novellas in translation. This one has a terrific ending – which I certainly won’t spoil, though the title and cover could be read as clues – and is a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a winter evening.
[Peirene issues books in trios. This is the first of the three books in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series. The other two, The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay and Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, will be released later in 2017.]
The Last Summer was published in the UK on February 1st. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.
With thanks to James Tookey of Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Other Peirene titles I’ve reviewed:
It truly felt like spring was on the way. Temperatures were in the mid-fifties (I’ve never really gotten to grips with Centigrade) and the daffodils in our back garden were trying their best to join the snowdrops decorating the churchyard in town. I started reading this pair of books to look to the seasons ahead instead of dreading that winter might return in earnest:
Some lovely things have happened in the past week.
- I’ve delighted from afar as my sister, a widow for just over two years, precipitously falls in love with a pastor she met through a dating website.
- I had my second yoga class and, after the one other participant had to leave early, got what was essentially a private lesson. Many of the poses feel right at the edge of what my flexibility and balance will allow, which is surely a sign that the exercise is doing me good.
- (This one’s not so much lovely as annoying yet amusing.) The cat, already a connoisseur of cereal milk, discovered the illicit pleasure of melted butter in a dish we unthinkingly left on the counter, and now will not rest in his search for it. This is bad news as he’s already quite the butterball. He’s also ramped up his efforts to access all of the house’s secret spaces, including the airing cupboard, the under-stairs cupboard, and the crawlspace under the bath. [Stay tuned for tomorrow’s mini-reviews of yet more cat books, including one about some very mischievous Siamese cats.]
- On Friday I got an e-mail out of the blue asking me to review a book for the Times Literary Supplement. It was October 2015 when I first wrote for them, but that ended poorly: they ran out space in the magazine for my review and paid me a “kill fee” instead, but it made me doubt myself – was that code for them not thinking my writing was good enough to publish? So hearing back from them five months after I’d last gotten in touch asking for work was a great surprise. And I get to read History of Wolves, which I’ve heard marvelous things about.
- We went to a brilliant gig by folk artists Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin in a hole-in-the-wall venue 10 minutes from our house. It was doubtless the first time I’d seen beatboxing and a classical Indian sitar/guitar used in folk music, and Henry’s harmonica skills were literally unbelievable. You had to have been there. I was impressed anew at how folk, arising as it does from liberal working-class traditions, is unafraid to tackle social issues. They had songs about his cotton mill-working grandfather, the war in Syria, immigration, and a detention center in the Midlands. My favorite, though, was “Landlocked,” about a real woman from the eighteenth century who went to sea with her naval husband but ended up right back where she started: selling fish at Exmouth harbor. I loved Martin’s deep, rich voice and the complex interplay of guitar, banjo, pedal steel and fiddle in many of their songs.
- With one of our leftover jars of homemade mincemeat we made a decadent mincemeat cheesecake from this Nigel Slater recipe. What with the shortbread crust and crumbs and the orange zest in the topping, it was very much like having mince pies – but also cheesecake. Yum.
- This morning we attended a service led by a former archbishop. We knew that George Carey was a parishioner at the Berkshire church we’ve been frequenting since December, but hadn’t seen him at the pulpit yet. He’s one of various retired and lay clergy who have been filling in while the church seeks to appoint a new vicar. Carey gave a damn fine sermon (I guess he’s had plenty of practice) on the enormous topic of why bad things happen to good people, refuting the prosperity gospel and telling the tragically fascinating story behind the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.”
And, of course, I’ve been reading some brilliant books. This week’s ongoing reading has included three terrific novels: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, and Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh.