Oh, meh. Meh meh meh. In all fairness, I'd noticed this book a few months ago (browsing Nordic literature in the Kindle winter sale) and concluded it...moreOh, meh. Meh meh meh. In all fairness, I'd noticed this book a few months ago (browsing Nordic literature in the Kindle winter sale) and concluded it wouldn't be my sort of thing. I'm not sure yet whether I'll read the entire longlist for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but this - whilst I deliberately chose it, on a day when I was quite stressed and unable to concentrate on anything substantial - isn't the most promising of starts. It seems that British prize longlists these days must contain some fluff, and like Almost English on last year's Booker, Butterflies in November, at over 300 pages, overstayed its welcome.
The beginning wasn't bad, and I thought the book would be joining my category of "smarter than the average chicklit" - shame it turned out to be essentially just chicklit, though a bit better written than what I remember of Jenny Colgan etc. (Interestingly, this book was published in Icelandic in 2004, around the height of the English-language chicklit boom.) The unnamed narrator is an eccentric translator who knows eleven languages; after being dumped by both her husband and her other man (both of whom were keener on her than she was on them), and being lumped with looking after the 4-year-old son of a friend for several weeks, she and the kid go on a roadtrip around Iceland.
I love road movies and wondered if the book would be more enjoyable in film form. However whilst some of the characters the pair meet would become more alive and memorable than they are on the page, I suspect the whole thing would be swaddled in that not-as-indie-as-it-thinks "quirky" aesthetic, albeit without the budget for Zooey Deschanel.
After a not unpromising start (and a metafictional twinkle in which the narrator's friend is named Auður, same as the author... Why waste a gift of a name like that?) the narrative went bland. This character must be someone with a remarkable mind who's seen other countries and who knows the different ways of thinking that come from many languages. Instead her thoughts are pretty humdrum and the only time her linguistic knowledge comes into the journey is when they meet an Estonian choir - and she doesn't even talk to them, just recognises the language from overhearing them. (I've come to understand that not everyone else's outlook is enmeshed with work they've done or topics they've studied - a friend once said to me with slight amused disbelief, "you become so intellectually and emotionally involved in everything you do" - but it still seems that in this case a major chunk of the character's experience and thought is missing.) In this, Butterflies was much like the few bits of British chicklit I read: you'd get a character who'd done a dissertation on Goethe, or was a programming whizz or something, but essentially this factoid was an aside and the rest of their identity and thought didn't correlate, except perhaps in very occasional or stereotyped ways.
Given that the book covers quite a lot of mundane matters, it gives some insights into Icelandic life. They are much less concerned with animal welfare than Brits: drowning a litter of kittens is evidently not something anyone's likely to take great exception to, including children, never mind having special offers on live pets in shops. There is casual mention of buying all "the Christmas books"; Many Goodreads posters probably know that in Iceland that doesn't just mean a load of celeb autobiogs and little books of dog meditation, but Jólabókaflóð the publication of most of the year's books within a few months and part of a national obsession with literature and book-giving. And, as in most other Icelandic books I've read, a relaxed, low-or-no-guilt, attitude to sex different from the hand-wringing common in all but some decadent or 1960s and 70s English-language litfic. (Sex between private individuals, that is - a sharp contrast with the recent legislation about the sex industry. A stripper makes a brief appearance in this book - written years before the ban - and no-one appears bothered.)
The final chapter of Butterflies in November was a welcome surprise. I'd noticed in the ebook contents that the final chapter was about recipes, and assumed this was a page or two. Actually it makes up 12% of the book. (Somewhat incongruous, as this is not a noticeably foodie novel, characters aren't chefs etc.) The chapter is written in an amusingly Beetonesque, sure-of-itself tone: "Lasagne is generally on the table on Wednesdays". Many, though obviously not all, of the dishes are Icelandic. They aren't so fascinating or appetising as those I was reading about in a recent bout of virtual tourism when I spent an evening browsing restaurant menus - and activities and accommodation - from Rovaniemi - but aside from the animal filleting sections which I skimmed, the gourmanderie was more engrossing than much of the novel.
This is a book which has its place as disposable light reading, probably translated in the wake of Jonas Jonasson's hit The Hundred Year Old Man, but Ólafsdóttir missed an opportunity with this character to create a far more interesting and unusual work.(less)
The 'Cold Sea' is the Baltic. This is a strikingly regional book compared with much translated contemporary lit I've read: Huelle's focus is the Gdans...moreThe 'Cold Sea' is the Baltic. This is a strikingly regional book compared with much translated contemporary lit I've read: Huelle's focus is the Gdansk area of northern Poland, his home. All of these short stories are set there or have expat protagonists originally from the area, except one set in seventeenth century coastal Sweden; they are variously realist or magic-realist. (Apparently influenced by Borges - whom I really should read as no other writer of whom I'm so ignorant is referenced this often re. books I read.)
Frequently, I think most fiction books could do with maps - not just fantasy - and this was a case in point. Several stories were enhanced by appreciating distances travelled or changing national borders. And if you've ever stared at poster maps of Europe you may have wondered about those funny strings and spits of land on the Polish coast: a couple of these stories give a little of their history. (So I realised after Google mapping some locations.) There are even train and bus routes on them. For yes, they are inhabited. Including by impoverished fisherman, the ghosts of fearsome wreck scavengers and piratical lore: like tales of the Cornish coast (without the glamour and sunshine - one of these areas is named Hel[l]) or Annie Proulx's rendering of old Newfoundlanders.
The stories themselves are pretty good but not spectacular - fans of literary short stories could do a lot worse - though I found some of them predictable. The translation was almost too smooth: it read so very much like English language literary fiction that the subtle and very welcome sense of difference from typical litfic style - one of the things I like best about reading translations - was almost absent. For me the attraction was hearing about places, history and cultures, and looking up numerous Wikpedia articles. (At the end of the book there is a dialogue between the author and translator which provides background but I loved getting much more detail online.)
The first two stories were the best, and have stuck in my mind most strongly in the week since I finished the book. 'Mimesis' is set in a village of Vistula Delta Mennonites; whilst it does combine a few tropes such as "young woman in religious cult" and others I shan't mention in case of spoilering, the combination of them was so unusual, and the context so surprising that it made a very memorable story, of a community I'd probably heard mentioned briefly in textbooks and then forgotten. 'The Bicycle Express' is quite transparently autobiographical and made textbook/newspaper history suddenly emotive and spine-tingling: the postgrad-student protagonist's efforts to help the then-new Solidarity movement, and his relationship with his cousin, a tragic dissident genius wrecked by a long stint in Siberia.
Several of the other stories are told from the viewpoints of men around the author's age and get away with bits of stereotyping an American author probably wouldn't (especially 'mystical wise men of the Orient') - though sometimes it's unclear whether Huelle is quietly sending himself up, for example in 'The Flight into Egypt', a tale of a painter who is unblocked after seeing news pictures of a beautiful Chechen refugee woman. 'First Summer' returns to the setting of 'Mimesis' in the company of people who weren't born at the time of the earlier story: this story of nostalgia gone sour pulls together many strings from elsewhere - and may be a comment on the east european phenomenon of nostalgia for the Communist era. It's ambiguous, again, whether its negativity about a party of loud, outrageous, frequently naked gay men trying to celebrate Poland's first gay wedding is the protagonist's or Huelle's. Their portrayal seems outdated, but then gay culture in eastern europe is still more underground (so my saying it's outdated could be similar to those US reviewers who criticise aesthete/ dandy types in fiction whilst I know from my own acquaintance that there are still real people quite like those).
It would be interesting to know how Huelle is viewed in Poland. (In the UK he's gained some recognition among readers of translated literature via four long- or short-listings for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but he's hardly well known.)I get a sense that if the history and geography in which his work is steeped weren't fascinatingly novel and exotic to me, he could perhaps be understood as another of those comfortably established (once-radical) writers who are overrated and always in the papers, like Ian McEwan in Britain.(less)
A short novel about the experience of a Polish Jewish woman during the Second World War, based on a true story. What makes this different from much "H...moreA short novel about the experience of a Polish Jewish woman during the Second World War, based on a true story. What makes this different from much "Holocaust literature" is how much of an adventure it turns into; it often reads like the trials and tribulations of a Resistance heroine, except that Izolda's cause is not her entire country, simply her friends and relatives, in particular her new husband - first to get them out of the Warsaw ghetto, and then trying to get him out of a concentration camp. As with the family in Art Spiegelman's Maus, jaw-dropping good luck, connections, and various skills both practical and social, enabled some of the people in Chasing the King of Hearts to survive the war whilst millions did not. (If I hadn't read Maus quite recently, I may have been incredulous about the sheer number of things people pull off.) Unlike the Spiegelmans, Izolda travels around long-distance, tries to make deals, uses disguises - though she too is eventually arrested. It's told in very short chapters and rather a detached style: often it is an account of what happened, minus fine detail, with occasional intrusion of strong feelings beautifully described. This reflects the experience of partial emotional shut-down in emergency situations whilst concentrating on methodically, obsessively getting things done and on survival. Some reviewers have commented that the style makes it difficult to connect with the protagonist, but if you have or recognise this shut-down tendency, then the narrative approach completely makes sense. Chasing the King of Hearts wasn't perhaps as amazing as the small-press publishers, Peirene, made it out to be - as the best of their books so far - but it will be of interest to those who want to hear stories of remarkable ordinary women during the Second World War or who get tired of the cumulative passivity of many characters in wartime litfic. (less)
Another from Peirene Press, a Finnish novella set in the late 1870s in the Kentish village of Downe (now with a somewhat less picturesque address in t...moreAnother from Peirene Press, a Finnish novella set in the late 1870s in the Kentish village of Downe (now with a somewhat less picturesque address in the London Borough of Bromley). The title character, one among many villagers whose thoughts we hear, is Thomas Davies, Charles Darwin's gardener, recently widowed and with two disabled children. (Darwin himself is a silent yet imposing presence in the book.) The cast and their concerns are the Thomas Hardy type of everyday country folk, busy, often judgemental; one feels that people have in a way been like them for hundreds or thousands of years, yet here they are in the time of the theory of evolution, with science challenging religion more publicly than ever before. Mr Darwin's Gardenerhas been described as a "postmodern Victorian novel"; I'd say modernist, though there are one or two postmodern touches. The narrative flits between many minds, their daily lives and their secrets and philosophies in the manner of Woolf or Joyce, though is very easy to read. The subject matter is, I suppose, quite dark, gritty and serious but the book is instead light and airy and charming, delicate even. The first couple of chapters were less satisfying, possibly due to the translation; it would be quite a task to translate sentences that copied the cadences of bird calls or church prayers (if indeed they do so exactly in the original) whilst also retaining their different narrative meaning - but the not-quite-fitting does show. It's interesting to see how an author from abroad views England; in social attitudes Carlson seems spot-on, done more quietly and non-judgementally than a typical UK writer. Nick Lezard in the Guardian, who's more unreservedly keen on the book than I am, says There is another aspect of Joyce that this novel shares, an aspect that some people forget: that of tender inclusivity, of sympathy and understanding. There are a few small errors of the factual type: too many Scottish and Irish names, a cow that won a prize in Cheltenham (a bit far to travel to show cattle with no motorised transport), and an unlikely goshawk, but most of the time these can be forgotten, immersed in a lovely, though not fluffy, book.(less)
Many of the UK book blogs I read love certain boutique presses, though until now I'd viewed these publishers as a bit too precious. (The blogs are nic...moreMany of the UK book blogs I read love certain boutique presses, though until now I'd viewed these publishers as a bit too precious. (The blogs are nice to read because they're usually more good-natured than, er, Goodreads, it's just that I have a misanthopic side too and am hardly ever bothered about fancy editions.) On actually looking at Peirene Press' website for the first time - in the run up to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize I wanted to find out more about their recent titles - I saw how very well their books suit my taste: they specialise in newly translated European fiction, with plenty from Northern and Eastern Europe, serious but not so heavyweight as, say, Krasznahorkai; all books are under 200 pages (yay); they print paperbacks which don't have excessively twee designs or separate dustjackets, and the company even supports a cause I particularly like (a charity providing counselling for people on low incomes). And as Peirene only releases three new titles a year - organised around a theme - it's not a tall order to read them all.
The 2013 theme was "turning points"; The Mussel Feast (only 105 pages) was written in Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the now-shaky Communist state it uses the allegory of a nuclear family with a tyrannical father who is unexpectedly late home one evening; the titular meal, his favourite, has been prepared; his wife, son and daughter don't much like it. In its transparency the allegory reminded me of the Czechoslovak New Wave film A Report on the Party and the Guests, or The Garden Party and other plays by Vaclav Havel, a collection I read a couple of years ago - however The Mussel Feast works better than these as its own story, not only as symbolism, and because of this I found it more involving.
Narrated by the eldest child, the 18-year-old daughter, it conveys terribly well, yet simply, the constricting atmosphere of a family with rigid rules in which you're usually frightened, and the obvious similarity of this with a political dictatorship. The thought pattern of difficult parent being late home, glad about it, freedom to breathe for a few more minutes but tension as they could be there any minute, have they had a car crash, hope they won't be coming back, but is that them now, was terribly familiar from numerous childhood days. (German Wikipedia implies the book is semi-autobiographical, which I can well believe. The absence of 1980s cultural references must relate to this - the writer is about 15 years older than the narrator - but this does give a sense of claustrophobia and being cut off that suits the subject.) The nameless girl's account of their family life is easy to read yet characterised by repetition, action related with little emotion, nasty things elided with phrases at once ominous and innocuous - "then my Sunday was over" after father was displeased about something - these and a style simpler than her implied intelligence all give the sense of a life during which branches of thought and feeling had to be cauterised as part of larger adaptation and survival. In some ways the expression is quite ordered: most of it is straightforward to understand, reflecting the predictability of the tyranny the narrator grew up in; yet trauma, secretly unmanaged terror and suppressed life force bubble underneath, the narrative's events and ideas sometimes blur into one another, and paragraphs are very long. In a speaker with more freedom of expression, the tone would be breathless, but here that headlong rush is disguised by someone who has mathematical and logical rather than artistic strengths, and who has had to learn over many years how to make things sound presentable to a person with particularly unrelenting standards.
The author later commented about writing the book, "I wanted to understand how revolutions start". I haven't actually studied the history of any modern revolutions in depth beyond school level, though what she shows rings true with the fall of Eastern Bloc Communism as seen on the news: the father's absence, signifying "gradual reform" or the earlier toleration of Solidarity, makes it possible for people who hadn't previously spoken up to share their thoughts more and to begin to act.
A number of positive reviews mention finding the book funny; for me it was literally too close to home and too well-realised for that but if you have the detachment to laugh at the absurdity of dictatorial people and their expectations, you may be amused. It's a shame The Mussel Feast wasn't translated earlier as it would have been of great interest in the early 90s when the political events were still fresh in everyone's minds.(less)