School’s not just out for summer.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 1910; 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th February 2017
Original language: German
Original title: Der Letzte Sommer (The Last Summer)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch
Russia: the students of the university are causing the governor hassle (they’re protesting) and he closes the place down. When he goes on holiday, a plot to assassinate him comes together and Lyu decides to help; under the pretence of security, Lyu joins the governor’s family where he hopes to carry out the assassination. It may prove difficult – the family rather like him, one daughter in particular, and where they assign good work to him he ends up procrastinating.
The Last Summer is a short and somewhat comedic epistolary thriller. Originally published in German in 1910, whilst the time period may have moved on, the sometimes light-hearted (yes, despite the subject) spirit of the book remains as fresh as though it were a new piece of writing.
This is perhaps aided by the translation. Translated into English for the first time, Huch’s book has been well rendered by Jamie Bulloch. The translator of a good few previous Peirene novellas, Bulloch’s language decisions have ensured the text remains steeped in its now historical context whilst being very readable for us today.
The letters – the detailing and wording, the characterisation – mean that you don’t just get to know the people writing, you get to know the recipients too. This is a book of correspondence purposefully lacking in written responses – the characters retort to replies you haven’t been privy to but whilst this may at the outset seem a setback it means the narrative is brisk without any losses. (And it’s interesting that on the whole it seems the receipts do a lot more thinking than our writers, showing the dynamics of the family.)
Because there is a lot of extra detailing beyond the crime at hand – of the good kind. The comedy comes in the form of the everyday quarrelling between the siblings, the responses to the responses of the aunt you don’t get to meet who seems to have suggested trouble afoot for the lovestruck niece who just wrote to her, and even, at one point, the failure of Lyu to come up with a believable reason for a threatening letter to have got past all the security. The comedy fits the time – if you like the classics and other well-known books about everyday life in this period, you’ll enjoy this book. The shortness means you may not get as much out of it but it’s a good couple of hours company.
As for the crime, there is enough if that’s the genre you’re looking for – the ending is rather super. It might often seem as though it’s more a novella of the family but Huch doesn’t forget her premise.
Seeming far from its age, The Last Summer is a novella to look out for. Do the thinking the characters should be.
I received this book for review.
Reigning for ten thousand years. It may indeed seem that long…
Publisher: Harper Perennial (HarperCollins)
First Published: 2003; 2006 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th June 2016
Original language: French
Original title: Impératrice (Empress)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter
Wu Ze Tian, as she would become known to history, begins life as the child of a privileged mother and a well-known but commoner father. After spending some years in a convent she is recommended to the Imperial City; a man who once aided her has found her a position as a royal concubine. Ze Tian finds no favour with her husband, the Emperor, but her ability as a horsewoman attracts the attention of his son who comes to desire her. She agrees to be his wife and thus starts a controversial era wherein for the first and only time a woman will rule China as Emperor.
Empress is an epic, fictionalised, account of Empress Wu’s life from her time in the womb to past death (it’s told in the first person). It’s the sort of book to read if the history intrigues you but you want to begin your lessons slowly.
Sa’s character is a difficult one. In Ze Tian you have a woman who was pulled from her life and put in a position that was both a source of envy and a horrible prospect – to be a concubine or wife was a high position in society, but most of the thousands of women kept in the City for the Emperor’s enjoyment would spend their days waiting for acknowledgement in vain. But you also have a woman who, once she gained power, was incredibly ruthless. Sa has balanced it all exceptionally well. For the most part the kindness of Ze Tian is kept to her early years – admittedly a lot shorter, page wise, than her reign – and her tyrannical decisions to said later reign. Sa does allow for moments of goodness and kind thoughts during Ze Tian’s time as emperor, but considering there is little chance at this point of your feeling any sympathy for the monarch, the author keeps it in the region of self-absorption and reflection. Sometimes this reflection just makes the horror worse, but one senses Sa just had to shrug her shoulders.
Ze Tian made a lot of positive changes in her time, even if many were later reverted. She set up a system wherein the regular person could state a grievance that would be listened to, she adjusted exams for hopeful scholars so that commoners could have a shot at governmental roles. She was a role model for women. So Sa gives the woman what positivity she can but is realistic about the tyranny. Of course there’s always the thought in the background, which Sa addresses in the first person narrative – how much of the punishment Ze Tian metes out is due to any evil versus how much does she deem crucial to the success of her status? The narrative revolves around Ze Tian’s thoughts, everything that happens is couched in its relevance to her, how it impacts her, so, again, Sa ensures you’re getting as objective a picture as you can, at least as far as the limits of first-person go. (The book is limited by this narrative choice.)
Jousting with the graphic violence for Most Gratuitous Aspect is the sex. There’s no getting away from sex in this book; the women in the Inner Court had no choice and neither do you – there’s a lot of it, in various guises, sometimes because it’s a reflection of the facts and sometimes because – unfortunately – it seems Sa has run out of ideas. What’s interesting is that you eventually become numb to the idea of incest and old women having sex with consenting-but-under-pressure-to-do-so teenagers because it’s just so prevalent; and it’s interesting that you become numb because there’s a great possibly that that’s something Sa is wanting you to feel – the conquests were acceptable in the situation and so by becoming attuned, study-wise, to it yourself, you stop feeling so nauseated by it and start to see the societal concepts behind it.
The writing is very poetic. The translation reads well and it certainly matches the poetic nature of historical Chinese writings and artwork enough that we can assume in it a faithful version. In terms of the writing’s impact on one’s reading, however, the book is very slow and can be a bit too flowery – sometimes it seems as though Sa is exploiting poetry in order to make her story longer than it should be. There is also a lot of info-dumping, Sa likes to go into meticulous, few-pages-long detail about events that could be summarised in a paragraph, and friends supposedly of many years pop up without you having heard of them before. It’s difficult to remember who anyone is in this book, the repetition makes everything so similar. No one is as important as Ze Tian and it shows.
And this is where we come to the main problem with the book – after a point, about two thirds of the way through, once Ze Tian is firmly ensconced on her throne, the novel becomes a series of repetitions. Ze Tian will worry about getting older; someone will suggest another is out to steal the throne; said accused person is condemned to death; Ze Tian is sad because she liked them; someone turns up in the royal bedroom to help the monarch remain young and energetic; that person is taken away; a pilgrimage or other journey happens; Ze Tian dreams of gods and her goodness… over and over again. Undoubtedly there was boredom to the routine of life at court and in the tedious nature of every action, every breath, having to adhere to etiquette… perhaps it is to show that tedium, and the slow decline of the body, but it’s overdone.
You’re never going to feel sorry for Ze Tian. You’re not going to like her and quite frankly it’s a relief to get out of her head. But if you can deal with the ennui I’ve mentioned, or if you’re happy to skip those sections, you might want to flick through Empress. Ze Tian’s reign was an important one, and if you’re at all interested in history your interest will be improved by knowing about her.
Or you could look for articles on the Internet and be just as, if not better, informed.
But I became a symbol of a corrupt woman… Novelists invented a life of debauchery for me, attributing their own fantasies to me.
This may be ironic.
There’s no way out. There’s every way out.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 2007; 30th September 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 20th September 2016
Original language: German
Original title: Stierhunger (Bulimia)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch
A young woman is approached by an older woman, asked if she’d share a cake because the cake is too large for one person. The older woman’s clothes are very old fashioned, from the 1800s, and her companion is similarly dressed. Though she avoids rich foods, the young woman agrees to take half the cake; after the purchase the older woman suggests sharing first her own half. The young woman finds she cannot say ‘no’, and whilst she believes it was her choice, it sets a precedent for the future.
The Empress And The Cake is an Austrian novella about three women of different generations who are connected. It’s got a bizarre, strange, atmosphere, a lot of history, looks at mental and physical health, and sports a brilliant uniqueness.
There are four major characters in this book, three in the present and one in the past. The present-day characters are our unnamed narrator, Frau Hohenembs, and the latter’s friend/servant, Ida. The fourth is the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, of the mid to late 1800s. Elisabeth is included via descriptions written by a friend – we view these scenes as reflections – and her presence in the novella is to show the basic ideas behind Stift’s drawing of Frau Hohenembs and Ida and thus the connection she has created between the factual Empress and the fictional characters.
This reviewer would recommend doing a bit of research into the personality and life of the Empress prior to starting the book. The book’s meaning won’t be lost without it but some knowledge of the Empress will really enhance your reading experience and allow you to figure out what might happen, which when you consider the fact the Empress is likely well-known in Austria and this is an Austrian book, just makes sense. Elisabeth’s story is quite fascinating; she was reluctantly married to an Emperor who adored her and spent her time away from the court she disliked, often travelling incognito. Her mother-in-law practically removed her from her children’s lives and she was assassinated by a man who wanted to assassinate a royal and hadn’t been able to get close to his first choice, nor his second.
Part of the connection between the characters and something that is a major theme is an obsession with slimness, which in the unnamed heroine’s case is a disorder, bulimia. The book gets into very graphic detail at times in order that Stift can show the way bulimia affects a person. It is a very frank portrayal, Stift’s character telling herself, or us, how this will be her last vomiting session, how she’s going to stop weighing herself so much – she’ll weigh herself several times a day instead of a dozen, for example (a difference the reader sees as inconsequential) – how she’ll start eating more again, only for her to revert almost instantly. (What’s interesting here is that the way the passage of time is shown in the book, the rough slowness that can be attributed to Stift’s detailing and repetition of the regular makes it seem as though more time passes between decisions than it truly does.) The heroine is bound by her disorder but does not see it – she views herself as in control of it. And her increased contact with Frau Hohenembs furthers her disorder.
Similarly she views herself as in control of her visitations to Frau Hohenembs apartment as well as the times she goes out with said lady and her servant; the truth is different. Not quite so different as her lack of control of her eating disorder, but a big part of the psycho-thriller aspect of the novella is the dwindling nature of personal agency. This is where the plot thread of cocaine comes in; the drug is not referenced directly for some time and we do not know whether the heroine and Ida take the drug, but there’s a vagueness, an ambiguity, in the story, that lets you imagine what is most likely. What, for example, was in that cake? Stift does not say either way – just sugar, or something more addictive? – that’s up to you to decide. (Does sugar itself perhaps reflect the addiction?)
Empress Elisabeth wanted to be very slim, and favoured being stitched into her clothes. Whilst the present-day fictional part of the story does not go this far, the factual forms a sort of backbone. Frau Hohenembs’s obsession with Elisabeth (does she think she is her? Does she want to emulate her?) never wavers, and as such the heroine falls into line behind her. This thread is not resolved neatly, but then it doesn’t need to be. It’s the connection that Stift wants to show rather than any reason d’etre.
On the gruesome front it should be noted there are visits to a ‘specimen’ museum. These, as well as the vomiting scenes, if the reader finds them difficult, can be flicked past because the importance in them lies in the sentiment rather than the scenes themselves – so long as you’ve the cause in mind, flicking past shouldn’t be a problem.
In regards to the translation, it reads well. Jamie Bulloch seems to have opted for a balance between literal word meaning and flow; there are some German words you may want to look up but the rough meaning is there in the text.
It’s hard to say exactly why The Empress And The Cake is so good. It has something to do with the complexity, the number of ideas in it, and the amount of thought that’s gone into it, but enough to say it’s excellent. It’s bizarre, random, and totally unique, and it makes you think, so much.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
History, war… and humour?
Publisher: Pushkin Press
First Published: 2012; 15th June 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 27th May 2016
Original language: Hebrew
Original title: לילה אחד, מרקוביץ (Markovitch, Layla Echad) (Markovitch, One Night)
Translated by: Sondra Silverston
Yaacov Markovitch has an unremarkable face. No one really notices him. His friend, Zeev Feinberg has an amazing moustache that everyone knows about. The friends enlist in a programme designed to rescue Jewish women from Germany, to bring them back to the homeland and whilst Zeev has no issues with the idea of divorcing a wife – he has a girlfriend who smells of oranges – Yaacov finds himself married to the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, a woman who wants nothing to do with him and will ignore him in the years that follow.
One Night, Markovitch is a funny yet poignant book (‘poignant’ is on the cover; it’s perfect) about all sorts of things related to the self as well as war and the effects of it on people’s lives. It’s one of those books that is solid throughout and very special.
The humour is mostly laugh out loud and very well timed – never too much, never something you forget. The book is peppered yet it would be difficult to label it a complete comedy because it’s anything but stereotypical. I’m going to have to share a quote:
“Are you excited about the journey to Palestine?”
That she would be excited about their marriage was something he dared not expect, but he hoped that the excitement she felt at the proximity of the Holy Land would project a bit onto the means of her reaching it, that is, onto him.
“Definitely. I’ve read a great deal about the oranges.”
Here Bella Zeigerman stopped speaking, and Yaacov Markovitch decided happily that his wife, like him, was a fan of agricultural literature. On the narrow, crowded bookshelf in his house in the village, next to the writings of Jabotinsky, stood all sorts of guides – the mother of wheat and how to improve species, how to plough and plant grain, how to graft a tree without causing pain. Bella Zeigerman knew how to recite Gothe, but it is doubtful that she would be able to memorize, with the same degree of success, the list of insects that threaten to destroy grapevines. When she mentioned oranges, it was because she recalled a line from the Hebrew poet’s poem [she is in love with his work] that had been published in the newspaper.
Humour is found in Sonya’s eyes, which are a couple of millimetres too far apart to be pleasing. It’s found in the way she stands on the shore yelling curses at the long-gone Zeev Feinberg who will return in time. It’s found in Zeev Feinberg’s moustache. And it’s found in some of the ‘lad-ish’ humour – this is in no way a women’s fiction book.
For a while it’s simply history and humour and then there comes a point where the mood is more sombre, the humour sensitive, almost, and whilst it’s not quite that because the story turns ‘sensitive’ on its head, whilst the war trickles in from the beginning, there is a turning point wherein it becomes the focus.
Gundar-Goshen mixes in some politics. The book deals with the beginnings of WWII, its situation for German Jews, whilst also dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which the Jews, their people persecuted in Germany, are in turn persecuting Arabs. Yes, it’s quite a bold statement. German Jews are fleeing Berlin before the major onslaught and in Israel, their ancestral land, they are in a good place. Gundar-Goshen does not say anything directly about the issues, the conflict betweens these conflicts, but there’s a flicker of an opinion.
This isn’t to say the wars are particularly detailed, however. For the most part they are in the background – Zeev Feinberg held an Arab by the throat today but now we’re seeing him at home with his children. The subtext is key. It spills out of the text – this conflict is everyday, a regular happening, and it’s in the ‘minor’ details like Zeev’s day that we see the horror of it.
Amongst this is the shock. It hits a few characters, informs their lives, but one in particular is commented on – Rachel Mandelblum. When in Germany – which she left for Israel, promptly ceasing to speak German, adopting Hebrew instead – Rachel experienced the horror of a murder, a skull being cracked. She can not escape the sound, it haunts her every day. Gundar-Goshen blends this specific horror into the humour of Rachel’s present situation, her pretending not to understand German, being not unhappy but no more than content living with the random butcher who proposed marriage when he saw her in the street. (She had no reason not to agree so she followed him home and had his child.)
The naming, whether cultural or not I’m not sure, is in a first-name-surname form every time. Rather than simply filling pages, it adds to the humour, though I can’t say why exactly.
The translation bares a strong sense of being true to the original. It’s an American translation, definite western words that are most certainly the choices of the translator rather than a choice based on how the text reads, but it’s by no means a bad text. It flows, it translates jokes into a western context for English speakers to understand… you know you’ve got a good translation when it doesn’t stand out.
The ending’s an interesting one for the way Gundar-Goshen refers to the audience, breaking the fourth wall (though there is, throughout, a feeling of that anyway) saying that, hey, she’s about to jump in time, but this is what happened in the interim she’s skipping, and it isn’t much, and this is why she’s had to do it, and so on. There are many books that jump in time for no reason – Gundar-Goshen’s explanation is a blessing.
One Night, Markovitch is superb. It’s fun, it’s serious with good reason and to good effect – it’s just a solid book all round.
Making a U-turn.
Publisher: Pushkin Press
First Published: 1961; 2nd June 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 3rd June 2016
Original language: French
Original title: Le Monte-charge (The Elevator)
Translated by: David Bellos
Albert has just returned home. His mother has died and after staying away for several years he’s returned without his girlfriend, who has also died. Coming to terms with the changes, he decides to visit the expensive restaurant he’d always wished he could visit as a child. There at a table nearby are a young girl and her mother. The mother is more than happy for him to chat to her daughter and seems interested in him, but there’s something about the woman and he just can’t put his finger on it.
Bird In A Cage is a slick novella that looks at a probable murder from the point of view of a potential conspirator. It’s a book that gets straight to the point and has no room for deviations in its storyline.
How reliable is Albert? That is a question and a half – from the start you get the feeling he can’t be trusted, but is that because of your knowledge of this genre or is it down to the character himself? For that matter how reliable is anyone here? Dard deals with few characters, a grand total of four specific ones, in fact, so there’s lots of room for suspicion. He holds your attention. Indeed due to the shortness of the tale, its pithy structure and overall atmosphere, you’re likely to finish this book within a couple of hours. Perhaps it was created this way, perhaps not, but Dard’s conciseness and detailing means you won’t feel the need to put the book down and that’s really the best way to read it.
A smidgen of mystery drips from the text – is what Albert’s seeing true? Depending on what aspect of the book is taking your fancy at any given moment you may well gain a suspicion as to what’s happening but if you do it will be only a half-formed idea. If you have spotted the clue you may well feel the age of the book more than a reader who hasn’t. This is to say the book is slightly outdated due to its atmosphere and the obvious now-historical nature of it, but it’s just so different and succinct that the age has only a minor impact. Unlike the work of Georges Simenon, who Dard has been compared to (and they knew each other), Bird In A Cage is written in such a way that it’ll likely entertain a wider age range.
The ending is deliciously ambiguous; there’s some wrapping up of the story but it’s only that which directly affects Albert – the rest is left unfinished in a literal way (it hasn’t happened yet). In saying this I’m reflecting on the way the story is told as a whole – whilst the plot is important, it’s Albert’s role in it all that is key, and the ending is one that, if you hadn’t already been doing a lot of thinking, will make you want to interact with the text. It brings a whole different flavour to the book, mixing two opposing tastes in one dish to create something that sounds unworkable but is really a triumph.
Enough with the food analogies. Bird In A Cage is a very solid, good book.
I received this book for review from the publisher.