The latest addition to my website is Siegfried Lenz‘s Der Überläufer (The Turncoat). This novel was originally written in 1951, Lenz’s second novel. However, it was not published then, partially for political reasons, and forgotten, only for the manuscript to be found in his papers after his death in 2014. It was published to great acclaim in Germany in 2016, It tells the story of Walter Proska. We first meet him as a German soldier, returning to the front near Kiev from leave. His train is blown up but he escapes and then joins a German troop guarding the railway, not very successfully. The troop is eventually captured and, at the instigation of his of his comrades, Walter joins the partisans and is with them as they come to his home town just across the former German-Polish border. After the war, he works for the Soviet-controlled Germany, the future East Germany. However, he learns that he is about to be arrested. Lenz tells an excellent story, particularly the first part with the troop with it s colourful members and nasty corporal.
The latest addition to my website is Francis Nenik‘s Reise durch ein tragikomisches Jahrhundert (Journey Through a Tragicomic Century). The book is a narrative non-fiction. It is the biography of a forgotten German writer, Hasso Grabner (link in German) who had something of a colourful life. He never knew his father, became a Communist early in his life, opposed the Nazis in the 1930s but ended up in Buchenwald and then as part of a punishment battalion in Greece, where he tried to sabotage the German war effort. After the war, he was in East Germany, working to build socialism but, because he was less than ideologically pure but very efficient, he was at one minute an ordinary worker and the next head of a major industrial combine. Eventually, he became a writer but, even then, clashed with the authorities. Nenik tells the story at a furious pace but makes plenty of comments and writes Grabner’s story as a novel not as a formal biography , which makes it highly readable and enjoyable. This is a book from new imprint V&Q Books, , headed by Katy Derbyshire, translator of this and many other fine German works.
The latest addition to my website is Dola de Jong‘s De thuiswacht (The Tree and the Vine). This book became famous as it is about lesbianism at a time (1954) when respectable Dutch women did not write about the topic. Bea is a sensible and responsible young woman. She meets Erica, an erratic and unpredictable young woman. Both are trainee journalists. It is 1938. They soon become close friends and move in together. Bea finds Erica’s behaviour both trying yet fascinating. They fall out when Bea’s boyfriend, Bas, and Erica clash. Erica wins and Bas is gone. It is only halfway through the book that Erica admits to Bea that she is lesbian and feels sure that Bea is too. Bea is certainly spellbound by Erica but she is resolutely heterosexual. The two continue their up and down relationship but Erica is half-Jewish and a German invasion is imminent. The book has now just been published for the third time in English and clearly the lesbianism helps but what makes it, is the complex and unpredictable relationship between two very different women.
The latest addition to my website is Stefan Chwin‘s Hanemann (Death in Danzig). Hanemann whose name is the title in most languages, including the Polish original, is a professor of anatomy in Danzig. He is to perform a post-mortem when he discovers that the body is of his lover, killed in a ferry accident. We then switch to the end of the War and the Germans are fleeing Danzig. Hanemann looks as though he is going to leave but then stays. We are never sure why. The family of the young narrator, Piotr, like Chwin’s own family, arrive in what is now Gdánsk and move in to a flat below Hanemann. The rest of the book is about their relationship with this enigmatic man, suspected by the Polish authorities of being a spy, a man who is living partially in the past, a German who speaks fluent Polish and has no desire to return to Germany but embraces German culture and a man who helps his neighbours and gets on with them. We never really learn who he is and nor does he himself.
The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Dom dzienny, dom nocny (House of Day, House of Night). The novel is set in the Polish town of Nowa Ruda, south-west Poland (Tokarczuk lives in a nearby village). It used to be in Germany but became Polish after the war. It is on the Czech border. The female narrator tells stories of herself, her neighbours, the other inhabitants and people who visit the town, including the German occupiers in the war. We go back to the local saint Wilgefortis aka Kümmernis, who had a woman’s body but the face of Christ (with beard) and the two world wars and up to around 1980. Most of the inhabitants are somewhat eccentric. However, we are not spared the horrors of wars and multiple deaths. All the stories are highly imaginative and original, with mystery and otherworldliness hanging over them. It is another first-class work from Tokarczuk.
The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Prawiek i inne czasy (Primeval and Other Times). This is the second of Tokarczuk’s novels published in English. It tells the story of a quasi-mythological village in Poland called Primeval. The village has fairly precise geographical coordinates but does not exist in real life. We follow the Niebieski family and their relatives from 1914 to approximately 1980. In some cases we get realistic accounts, e.g. of the two world wars and their effect on the village, and in other cases, Tokarczuk uses fantasy or magic realism to show other aspects of the village, in the way that Gabriel García Márquez does in Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude). The whole story mirrors the suffering that Poland has experienced during the period, from the two world wars to Communism and its corruptions. It is a superb introduction to Tokarczuk’s work.
The latest addition to my website is Paul Gadenne‘s Les Hauts-Quartiers [The Upper Districts]. This novel was published seventeen years after Gadenne’s death and has not been translated into any other language. It is long (800 pages) and rambling. It tells the story of Didier Aubert, a young man clearly based on the author. We start with Dunkirk, as Didier and his mother flee the advancing Germans and escape to South-West France. Like Gadenne, Didier suffers from tuberculosis and like Gadenne is an ascetic intellectual. Didier struggles with finding suitable accommodation, struggles in his relationships and struggles with the bourgeoisie (whom Gadenne continually mocks), those who live in the Hauts-Quartiers, the posh part of town. He really wants peace and quiet for his studies but that is just not possible, as life gets in the way. It is considered by many critics to be a classic of twentieth-century French literature but perhaps needed a good editor.
The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads). This is the third novel in Modiano’s Occupation Trilogy. The narrator, probably called Serge, a young novelist, first met his father when he was seventeen. The pair tried various nefarious scams, finally hitting on forged dedications in novels to sell to collectors. However, it seems that the father tried to kill his son. Ten years later, during the German occupation, the son has tracked down the father in a village. He is now involved with a group who appear to be both dealing in the black market and publishing a magazine which uses blackmail as a way of earning money. The father does not seem to recognise his son and the son does not introduce himself, though he gets involved with the group. Inevitably, things do not work out well, though we are never sure if the narrator is telling us the truth and what really happened.
The latest addition to my website is Vasily Grossman‘s За правое дело (Stalingrad). This book was first published in the Soviet Union in Novy Mir magazine in 1952 and then in book form in 1954, soon after Stalin’s death, without which it may not have been published. Both versions were heavily censored. Only now, with the translators, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, using Grossman’s original manuscript, has the book finally been published as Grossman intended it. The plot follows the situation in Stalingrad leading up to the Battle of Stalingrad and the beginning of that battle and immediately precedes the events taking place in Grossman’s famous Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate). It is superbly told, as we see the action from all sides, both the ordinary Soviet citizen and those directly involved in the fighting whether as ordinary soldiers or senior officers, as well from the German side, including a couple of appearances by Hitler. By the time the book ends, the Germans have entered Stalingrad and are confident of taking it, with the Soviets offering fierce resistance but being pushed ever further back. It is brilliantly told, full of action and gives us a view of the Battle from all perspectives. It is destined to join Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) as a major Russian classic.
The latest addition to my website is Dritëro Agolli‘s Komisari Memo (The Bronze Bust). It is nice to know that Ismail Kadare is not the only Albanian novelist translated into English. While this book is not of the same calibre as Kadare, it is still a well-told tale, about Albanian partisans in World War II, fighting the Germans and Albanian nationalists (in cahoots with the Germans). The main focus is on the eponymous (in the Albanian title) Commissar Memo, a communist hero. We know he has died from the beginning, as a group of people are hauling a bronze bust of him up a hill. We follow his career as he tries to change the political views of the locals, antagonises the nationalists, gets shot in the leg (badly), hides out in a town occupied by the Germans and then joins a partisan group fighting the Germans and nationalists. He is certainly the standard communist hero, though not without faults. Not a great work but a good read.