The latest addition to my website is Pierre Mertens‘ Une paix royale [A Royal Peace]. This is a superb book about a Belgian called Pierre Raymond who is now a fairly reluctant travel guide, though this is something he has done for most of his life. However, he now needs a new focus and that focus will be his own country. In the column that he writes for his agency’s travel magazine, he intends to write about his own country and will focus on two specific aspects – the Belgian royal family and Belgian professional cyclists. His interest in the royal family stems from when he was thirteen and he was knocked off his bicycle by a car, whose passengers were King Baudouin and his father Leopold III (who had abdicated in his son’s favour). Raymond gives us considerable detail about the royal family, particularly Leopold III, who was controversial for having stayed in Belgium after the German invasion in World War II and considered by many Belgians to have compromised himself. This book was controversial as his portrait of the royal family is not always flattering. However, we also learn much about Pierre’s life and his family, a family which does divorce much better than it does marriage, as well as learning about the sometimes troubled Belgian cycling fraternity. Pierre gets to meet one of the most famous Belgian cyclists, as well as Leopold III’s widow and second wife as well as King Baudouin. Overall, this novel works very well even if the considerable detail about the royal family could put off some non-Belgians (though not me). Sadly, it has not been translated into English and is unlikely to be translated.
They have announced that Richard Flanagan‘s The Narrow Road to the Deep North has won this year’s Man Booker Prize. To my surprise, I have read the winner. It certainly was not a bad novel and well told and clearly helped exorcise both Flanagan’s demons and those of his father. However, I do not think it is a great novel, though it may well be better than the other five, none of which I have read. I have always had a bit of a problem with Flanagan. There seems to be something there but for me, he does not quite make it. I may read one or two of the others but certainly not anytime soon. I shall continue with my reading of books from the shortlists of other book prizes, where I hope to find something better.
The latest addition to my website is Lutz Seiler‘s Kruso, part of my feeble effort to read shortlisted books for this year’s book prizes, other than the Man Booker. This book was not only shortlisted for the German Book Prize (Deutscher Buchpreis) but won it. I had anticipated that it would win so had already acquired it. This was not prescience on my part, as most commentators had forecast that it would win. Most reviewers liked it but the Frankfurter Allgemeine called the decision to give it the prize a dubious decision (link in German).
The book is set primarily on the island of Hiddensee, an island off the coast of the then German Democratic Republic, in the months before the fall of the Soviet system. Edgar (Ed) Bendler, a student of German literature at university, has lost his girlfriend (knocked down and killed by a tram) as well as his cat. He sees an old postcard of Hiddensee and decides to spend his summer holidays there. The island serves as a jumping off point for people escaping East Germany to the West (it is not far from Danish territory) as well as being a holiday resort. Ed works in the local café, which is essentially run by a man called Alexander Krusowitz, known as Kruso to some and Losch to others. The two men become close for various reasons. Both are lovers of poetry and nature. Kruso’s sister, Sonja, drowned, while his mother, a former circus performer, died, when she fell off a high wire. Both men share their losses, not least because Sonja looks a bit like G., Ed’s late girlfriend. Kruso feels that it is his role to protect the people known as the Shipwrecked, the drifters who come to the island, often looking to escape to the West. His concern for them is partially caused by his sister’s drowning. The island takes on something of a mystical role for both Kruso and Ed but, gradually, as the breakup of the Soviet system accelerates, people, both the Shipwrecked and staff of the café, drift away, leaving Kruso, Ed and the East German officials. It is a first-class novel about the fall of the Soviet system, group dynamics, escape and freedom and I would like to hope that it will be translated into English, though the last two winners of German Book Prize have yet to make it in English.
German author Siegfried Lenz has died. While not particularly well known in the English-speaking world, several of his works were translated into English, particularly Deutschstunde (The German Lesson), a superb novel about duty and art and the conflict between the two. It has been translated into English and is still readily available.
Lutz Seiler has won this year’s German Book Prize. He is known as a poet and this is his first novel, a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. I hope to have a review of it up later this week, though, of course, it has not been translated into English. I read last year’s winner and that has not been translated, nor has 2012’s winner, which I also hope to get around to but as the 2011 and 2010 winners have been translated into English, there is hope that this one might eventually make it.
The latest addition to my website is Oskar Maria Graf‘s Anton Sittinger [Anton Sittinger]. This book, first published in 1937 (in London) tells the story of the rise to power of the Nazis, as seen through the eyes of Anton Sittinger, a postal inspector in Munich, who retires to the country in 1929. He is thoroughly egotistical, bullying his wife, Malwine (who becomes a committed Nazi) and refusing to get involved in anything political, as it is inappropriate for a civil servant, as he says, though what he really wants is stability and, more importantly, his own well-being and comfort. We follow him from 1917, when World War I is a major inconvenience for him, though he does manage to hoard some gold, via the social upheavals after the war in Munich, to his retirement to the country, where he still sits on the fence, as the Nazis gradually indulge in their brutal acts and, eventually, come to power. Graf makes no bones about the fact that it is the Sittingers who are to blame for the rise of the Nazis (and for the rise of similar dictatorships in other countries), due to their inaction and utter self-centredness. Surprisingly the book has not been translated into English but, if you read German it is a fascinating account of the rise to power of Hitler, seen through the eyes of an ordinary German.
I have just updated the statistics for my website. England sadly remains top in terms of number of books, and the USA in terms of number of authors. I say sadly, because there is no doubt that England is far from the most important producer of quality novels over the last 120 years. During the past six months, I have passed the 1000 author pages and 2500 books reviewed numbers, while four new countries, with at least one book reviewed, have been added. Women authors sadly remain low, at 22% (number of books) and 23% (number of authors). I do not expect that number to change significantly in the near future.
The latest addition to my website is Dannie Abse‘s Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve. Dannie Abse died last week, aged ninety-one. He was best-known as a poet but he also produced some prose works, including a few novels, of which this, very much an autobiographical novel, is the first. It tells of his life from 1934 (when he was eleven) to five years later, soon after World War II started. it is not flowery and poetical as we might expect from a poet but full of sharp observations of the people around him, particularly some of his relatives. His family is Jewish but this does not appear to be much of an issue for him. Indeed, as he tells his friend, the main difference is that the Jews pray on Saturday, instead of Sunday. They are, of course, very much aware of what is happening in Nazi Germany and young Dannie has this fantasy about a young Polish Jew who goes to the German Embassy in Paris to assassinate the German ambassador. However, most of the book is about growing up, from fighting other boys to first encounter with the opposite sex, both of which come with their own problems. It is a very lively account and very enjoyable picture of his early life, even if its perhap more autobiography and less novel. The title, by the way, comes from T S Eliot’s Little Giddings.
The latest addition to my website is Paula Gunn Allen‘s The Woman Who Owned The Shadows. Native American authors still get something of a short shrift in the US pantheon, which is a pity as there are some very fine Native American novels. This is one of them, telling the story of Ephanie Atencio, a Native American woman struggling with her identity. She has problems most of all with her role as a Native American, remembering both the cruel treatment suffered by native Americans in the past and the continued mistreatment and prejudice they face now. (This is of particular interest in the week when the US government has agreed to pay a settlement of $554 million to the Navajo nation.) She also faces some prejudice, as she is bisexual and homosexuality is particularly frowned upon by Native Americans. We follow her from a period when she seems to be dying, her first husband having left her and her two children staying with her mother, via a stay in San Francisco, a second marriage to a Nisei (Japanese-American man) which is also unsuccessful but produces another child, an escape to Oregon and a return home, where she tries to reestablish links with both the culture of her own people as well as her past. It is an interesting book, both as the portrait of a woman struggling with her own role, as well as for the many issues, past and present, faced by Native Americans.