Why do we seem to like Hitler in our fiction? Last year saw the English translation of Laurent Binet‘s HHhH (HHhH) and next year will see the publication in English of Timur Vermes‘ Er ist wieder da [He’s Back]. Now, the latest twist on the Hitler story is another French book, this one by the pseudonymous François Saintonge, called Dolfi et Marilyn. It tells the story of the 130 year old billionaire Reinhard Gentschel who clones his two favourite dead people – Adolf Hitler and Marilyn Monroe. I have not seen any announcement as to whether it is to be translated into English but I would not be surprised. I have not yet read it and do not know whether I will. So why are we still fascinated by him? After all, we do not seem to have too many novels about other 20th century monsters, such as Stalin and Mao, though maybe the Russians and Chinese are producing them and we are not aware of them. Non-fiction books about the Nazis also apparently sell very well. Is this because Nazism and Hitler affected us (i.e. Western Europeans) much more than did Stalin and Mao? Whatever the case, I am sure we will see more books along these lines.
Having read John Lanchester‘s article on the lack of novels involving the London Tube system, I decided to create a list of novels (partially) set on the London Underground Railway. While I did find a few, there were not many impressive works, with far more films, including one that did not make Wikipedia’s list (see above) though it did make this list. Lanchester says that as the tube is so central to Londoners’ lives, he is surprised that there is no novel where the tube is central. Of the novels on my list, I had read six and, I must confess, that only with the Julian Barnes’ novel, did I even remember the tube featuring at all. However, people do read on the Underground as Annie Mole’s excellent blog shows.
The most recent addition to my website is Carlos Rojas‘ El Ingenioso Hidalgo y Poeta Federico García Lorca asciende a los infiernos (The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell). This is the second in the loose trilogy,the first being El valle de los caídos [The Valley of the Fallen]. This one, as the title shows, is about Lorca after his mysterious death and shows not only an unusual idea of hell – you spend your time watching a theatrical performance of your life, your dreams and your fantasies – but also tries to show what happened to Lorca when and after he was arrested and what might have happened had he not been arrested, as well as raising other issues in his life. Amazingly, this novel is about to be published in English by the Yale University Press (April in the USA and May in the UK), for which they can only be warmly congratulated.
The latest addition to my website is Christos Tsiolkas‘ Dead Europe. I had previously read his The Slap but was not terribly impressed with it. I was not terribly impressed with this book, either, though it is certainly more interesting than The Slap. It tells both the tale of a thirty-six year old gay Australian photographer through several European cities and the story of a Greek family, from a mountain village, with their superstitions and anti-Semitism (a key theme of the book), a family we soon learn that is his mother’s family. We may all have our differing views on whether Europe is dead (and, conversely, Australia and the United States are not) but I do not feel that Tsiolkas makes his case in this book. Nevertheless, it is interesting to get a different perspective.
The latest addition to my website is Joseph McElroy‘s Actress in the House. This is another somewhat odd novel from McElroy, his first in fifteen years (and the next one won’t be till June 2013, ten years after this one). It starts with an actor slapping an actress, playing his sister, very hard in the face and carries on with McElroy’s trademark themes of people trying to make sense out of random information and link things together, a lawyer wondering whether he should sue the state of Connecticut for causing an earthquake, a couple sleeping together in the nude but not having sex, an atrocity during the Vietnam War and various odd events seemingly somehow connected. It makes for interesting if somewhat puzzling reading.
The latest addition to my website is Carlos Rojas‘ El valle de los caídos [The Valley of the Fallen]. This book is the first in a trilogy by Rojas concerning Spanish history. Despite the title, named after a Francoist monument to the fallen in the Civil War, it does not involve the Civil War but is about Goya, Charles IV and Ferdinand VII, kings of Spain during Goya’s era, and the death of Franco. Rojas mixes up events from Goya’s time and from Goya’s perspective with a story told in the few days leading up to Franco’s death and comes to the conclusion that things really have not got much better and probably are not going to do so. I plan to get to the next two books in the trilogy in the next week or two.
The latest addition to my website is António Lobo Antunes‘s Conhecimento do Inferno (Knowledge of Hell, an earlier novel by Antunes but still very much in the style of his later novels. It is the story of a psychiatrist called António Lobo Antunes who is travelling from the Algarve to Lisbon by car and is recounting what he sees but, more particularly, his life, to his (absent) daughter, Joanna. His vision is inevitably bleak as he starts off by criticising the English tourists and the Portuguese who sell things to them and moves on to paint an overall bleak portrait of Portugal as it is in the present day. But he also spends much time damning his own profession and the psychiatrists who practise it, as well as describing the horrors of Portugal’s colonial war in Angola, where he served as an army doctor. As always with Antunes it is superbly told, told in an original and vivid language but it is uniformly grim as well.
The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Ni d’Ève Ni d’Adam (Tokyo Fiancée), another quirky novel from the Belgian author. This one, like many of her other books, is about one of her visits to Japan and the main theme is Western-Japanese cultural differences. As the English title indicates, she meets a Japanese man and they become engaged. She had been teaching him French, which he is studying, not very successfully, at university. As always, Nothomb is witty but also insightful about Japanese culture and the Japanese view of Westerners, as well as Western views of the Japanese. Nothomb is one of those authors, like Joyce Carol Oates, whom I find difficult to keep up with, as she is prolific, producing a new novel every year. I plan to read one or two more soon.
The latest addition to my website is Rachel Joyce‘s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This is one of those quirky English novels about a seemingly normal and boring Englishman, who suddenly does something unexpected. In this case, Harold Fry, who is retired from working for a brewery and is living with his wife Maureen, their marriage having long since gone sour, receives a letter from a former colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who is dying from cancer in a hospice at the other end of the country. He writes her a brief letter and sets out to post it and then does not stop but decides to walk all the way to Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the hospice is, without proper footwear, equipment or maps. The book is the story of his journey. He meets some helpful people, sees something of the country and reflects on his life – his marriage, his relationship with his son, his job, Queenie. That he is a different and probably better person at the end of his journey is certain. The novel is witty, well told and, at times, poignant without being mawkish.
The latest addition to my website is Cezar Petrescu‘s Cezar Petrescu: Întunecare (Gathering Clouds), another early twentieth century Romanian novel. This one was originally three volumes but, sadly, only the first volume has been translated into English so this review only covers that first volume. It is set in the First World War. Romania initially stayed out of the war. King Carol was a Hohenzollern and tended to support Germany and Austro-Hungary. Most Romanians wanted Romania to join Russia, Britain and France, primarily to reclaim Transylvania from Hungary. Romania was ill-prepared for the war when the country finally declared war on Austro-Hungary and, after initial successes, its armies were soon overrun and went into headlong retreat. This novel shows these events from the perspective of a Romanian family – an army colonel and a member of parliament – and their friends and family. Petrescu cleverly shows the widely differing views prevailing both before and after the war and the dark side,with much corruption and profiteering. It is a pity that the other two volumes have not been translated, as they go on to tell more of what befell Romania for the rest of the war and what happened to our hero, Radu Comşa, secretary to the MP.