Jaan Kross: Kolme katku vahel; Balthasar Russowi 2 (Between Three Plagues: A People Without a Past)

The latest addition to my website is Jaan KrossKolme katku vahel; Balthasar Russowi 2 (Between Three Plagues: A People Without a Past). This is the second volume of a four-volume historical novel set in sixteenth century Estonia and recounting the life of Balthasar Russow, the Estonian chronicler of the era. We left him in the previous volume, having fled back to his studies in Germany after being involved in the unsuccessful Peasants’ Revolt. Now he is back in Tallinn, pastor of the Holy Ghost Church and writing his chronicle, which will make him famous (at least in Estonia). Events in Estonia have not improved since the Swedes took over, with regular attacks by the Russian and their allies and the plague appearing regularly. Baltahasar’s chronicle also stirs up some controversy, as not everyone thinks that his truth is their truth and there is even an attempt to sabotage it. It is another fine work by Kross, lively, colourful and never a dull moment.

Jaan Kross: Kolme katku vahel; Balthasar Russowi 1 (Betweeen Three Plagues: The Ropewalker)

The latest addition to my website is Jaan KrossKolme katku vahel; Balthasar Russowi 1 (Betweeen Three Plagues: The Ropewalker). This is the first in a series of four novels Kross wrote between 1970 and 1980, telling the tale of Balthasar Russow, an Estonian man who wrote a celebrated chronicle of Estonian history. This book is based on his life (1536-1600) and is set during a period of considerable upheaval in Estonian history. At the beginning of the novel, the country is part of Livonia (roughly modern-day Estonia and Latvia) under the rule of the Teutonic Order, i.e. Germans. Not surprisingly, the locals are not happy with this. During the course of the book the Russians, under Ivan the Terrible, invade and the Estonians call on the Swedes to help. We follow Balthasar’s schooling but he also manages to get involved in various events, from watching the eponymous rope-walking at the beginning of the book to the peasants’ revolt at the end, with a variety of other events in between. It is a very colourful and superbly well told tale by Kross. The parallels with 1970 Estonia – Russian invasion, nasty overlords – will not have been lost on his readers.

Magda Szabó: Katalin utca (Katalin Street)

The latest addition to my website is Magda Szabó‘s Katalin utca (Katalin Street). This is a new translation (September 2017) replacing the one from 2005. It tells the story of three families who had lived in nice houses on Katalin Street, before World War II but, at the start of the book, are living in one flat, the Katalin Street houses having been replaced with social housing. The post-war residents, with one family having been killed (parents sent to a camp, as they were Jewish, daughter killed tragically), one other having been killed in the war and one having defected to Greece, are all miserable with their lot. Bálint, the oldest of the younger generation, who was loved by the three daughters of the other families, has not lived up to expectations (his or anyone else’s) and the others struggle to cope, all the while dreaming of the good times in Katalin Street.

Vasil Bykaŭ: Альпийская баллада (Alpine Ballad)

The latest addition to my website is Vasil Bykaŭ‘s Альпийская баллада (Alpine Ballad). This is a new translation, from the original Belarusian, a distinct improvement on the previous translation from the (censored) Russian. It tells the story of two people – the Belarusian Ivan and the Italian communist, Giulia – who escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in Austria, when Soviet prisoners detonate an unexploded bomb dropped by the US Air Force. The couple, who meet while escaping, manage to flee their initial pursuers and head into the Alps. Inevitably, the two become closer as they deal with the problems of their pursuers (inducing Alsatian dogs), the bad weather they first encounter, a mad German fellow escapee and, of course, the issue of food and where they are going. Bykaŭ tells an excellent story, with some criticism of the Soviet system (to Giulia’s horror), some lyrical description of the Alpine landscape and the burgeoning relationship of the two escaped prisoners.

Lars Mytting: Svøm med dem som drukner (The Sixteen Trees of the Somme)

The latest addition to my website is Lars Mytting‘s Svøm med dem som drukner (The Sixteen Trees of the Somme). This is a very well-told tale by the author of the definitive guide to wood-chopping, Norwegian Wood. Edvard Hirifjell lives with his grandfather on a remote farm in Norway. His parents died when he was three and his great-uncle Einar, his grandfather’s brother, was shot by the French resistance in 1944. However, he gradually finds out that his parents’ death is shrouded in mystery, that Einar may not be dead and that Einar may be somehow connected to his parents and their death. Having never even travelled to Oslo, he sets off for the Shetlands soon after his grandfather dies, leaving behind his girlfriend, who has reappeared after a long absence. From the Shetlands he goes, as the English title tells us, to the Somme where, after a lot of complications, both with the mystery and his love life, he more or less resolves the mystery. It is a very well-told tale by Mytting and a most enjoyable read.

Nicole Krauss: Forest Dark

The latest addition to my website is Nicole KraussForest Dark. This is another superb novel from Krauss, telling two parallel stories. One is about Jules Epstein, a sixty-eight year old, divorced Jewish-American man who has made a lot of money but now feels disconnected from his present and finds the need to reconnect with both his personal past (his parents, in particular) and his Jewish past. The other story is about a novelist called Nicole whose failing marriage and writers’ block gives her an epiphany – a sense of being in two places at once but also in the forest dark (a quote from Dante). Both set off to Israel, Jules to reconnect with King David and leave a tribute to his parents, Nicole to reconnect with the Tel Aviv Hilton, where she was conceived and where she has spent many happy hours both as a child and adult, which she thinks might be the key to writing her next novel, but also to find Kafka. Both Jules and Nicole also get their own contemporary but somewhat oddball guides. It is a book about discovering one’s private past but also one’ collective past as well as finding our who we are now.

Robert Walser: Der Gehülfe (The Assistant)

The latest addition to my website is Robert Walser‘s Der Gehülfe (The Assistant). This is the second book published by Walser (the third he wrote) and is based on his own experiences. The story involves Joseph Marti, a self-critical, somewhat absent-minded young man, who goes to work for Carl Tobler, an inventor. He lives in the house with Tobler, his wife and four children. Tobler has several inventions, such as the Advertising Clock but, unfortunately for him, no-one seems interested either in investing in them or buying them. He gradually runs up debts, which he declines to pay, leaving Joseph spending at least part of his job fending off debt collectors. Joseph, meanwhile, drifts through life and his job, unpaid but often unconcerned. It is enjoyable book though not Walser’s best.

Fiona Mozley: Elmet

The latest addition to my website is Fiona Mozley‘s Elmet. There have been a lot of interesting novels coming out recently from young British women. I recently read Adelle Stripe‘s excellent Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, and here is another first-class novel set in Yorkshire. This novel surprised everybody by being nominated for the Man Booker longlist. It tells the story of a bare knuckle fighter, John, and his two teenage children, Daniel and Cathy, who live in a remote area of Yorkshire and live mainly off the land. However, they come up against an exploitative landowner and John takes the fight to him, leading to one of the most explosive endings in a début novel I have read. It is a wonderfully written novel and well deserving of its nomination and I for one would be very happy if it won.

Joyce Cary: The Horse’s Mouth

The latest addition to my website is Joyce Cary‘s The Horse’s Mouth. This is the third book in Cary’s first trilogy and far the best-known, primarily because of the character of the narrator/protagonist Gulley Jimson and also because of the the film of the book starring Alec Guinness. Jimson is a thorough rogue, continually cheating, deceiving and lying, often in trouble with the law but always trying to paint his masterpiece, though never succeeding. The book is hilariously funny as he manages to wiggle out of most (though certainly not all) of his scrapes, and tries to paint.

Nicole Krauss: The History of Love

The latest addition to my website is Nicole KraussThe History of Love. This is an excellent book about creativity and authorship, about the Holocaust and about who we are. Leo Gursky was in love with Alma back in Slonim (variously in Poland and Russia). Her father paid for her to go to the USA before the Nazis arrived but Leo did not escape in time. However, he managed to hide out and emigrated to the USA after the war. Meanwhile, Alma, thinking him dead, had married. Leo had written three books before the war. The History of Love, however, was a novel apparently written by Zvi Litvinoff and only available in Spanish, about a woman called Alma. The connection between these characters, the novel and Alma Singer, who is named after the Alma of the novel, forms the basis for the complicated plot.