Sunday, December 19, 2010

Blind Side of the Heart

Apologies everyone for a long silence - I have been checking out the book scene in the States!   To my astonishment [and chagrin given the quietness of our bookshops here], the bookshops in New England, at least, are hopping and, particularly, the independents.  One store I visited reminded me of Christmas Eve in the old days here when there was barely room to move!

On the plane over, I read The Blind Side of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated by Anthea Bell.   This is one of the titles on this year's Impac Award Longlist.   Published originally in Germany in 2007, it was the winner of the Deutscher Buchpreis and was published in English in 2009.

The narrative covers the first half of the last century, opening in 1945 in Stettin railway station, crowded with Germans fleeing west and where Helene, the protagonist of the book, abandons her eight year old son.   The author then takes us back through Helene's life in an effort to justify this inexplicable action.

Helene and her older sister, Martha, grow up in a small town in Saxony, their father an invalid from the lst WW and their mother, a Jew, quite mad.   They escape from this unenviable background to live with their aunt, a prominent socialite in Weimar Berlin.  There are shades of Christopher Isherwood here in content, if not in style.   Martha falls easily into the decadence and dissipation of partytime Berlin becoming a victim of drugs and dubious sexual behaviour while Helene strives to equip herself with some kind of education and career.   She becomes engaged to an upright and kind young man, Carl, but [and bit of a spoiler here I'm afraid], following his death, she becomes entangled with and married to a rather nasty, sadistic Nazi - are there any other kinds?   The narrative then follows the events of the late thirties and the war years as they affect Helene culminating in the scene in Stettin railway station and its aftermath.

Essentially, the narrative deals with questions of identity, emotional deprivation and generational conflict.   Helene is uncomfortable with the loose morality of Berlin especially the bisexuality into which she is drawn.   Later she deals with her husband by absenting herself mentally.   She yields herself to the point of losing her first name and in her apparent subservience to her Nazi husband, the author attempts to portray Hitler's Germany in microcosm.  
Carl reads Spinoza to her, quoting, 'Happiness is not the reward of virtue, virtue is its own reward.   We are not glad of it because we rein in our lusts:  but because we are glad of it we can rein them in'.   Much as the author might like, it is hard to identify these sentiments with either Weimar Berlin or Nazi Germany - but maybe that is her very point.

This book is not a challenging read and the author avoids reiterating scenes well known of the rise of Hitler in the thirties by concentrating entirely on Helene and her progress, physically and mentally as a political innocent, quite disinterested in her country's doings except insofar as they concern her personal life and its disintegration.  How successful Franck is at doing this, one can only judge by one's reaction to the epilogue.   At times, she seems to labour too hard to make her point but it does represent a useful addition to the growing body of literature by German authors about Germany in those divisive years.

Monday, November 15, 2010

IMPAC 2011

News Latest!!  The Impac Award Longlist for 2011 is out.   See for an exhausting and exhaustive reading list for the next five months because that's how long you have to wait for the short list!   April 12th to be exact.

There are 162 titles on the list and yet they still managed to miss Tom McCarthy's 'C'.   My sorrow is immense.   However, there are some goodies like Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin.   The Irish Times are tipping The Vagrants [Yiyun Li] and Red April [Santiago Roncagliolo].  

Other titles that are deservedly there include Homer & Langley [E.L. Doctorow] - a charming tale of two brothers in the early part of the twentieth century in New York, one of whom loses the plot on his return from the lst WW.  Not surprisingly, JM Coetzee is listed for Summertime and of course, Orhan Pamuk for The Museum of Innocence.   But, to my surprise and utter delight, so too is Javier Marias for Your Face Tomorrow:  Poison, Shadow and Farewell.   Marias is hugely popular in Spain and one of the  best contemporary European authors.   This title is the third volume in a spy trilogy in which the protagonist, Deza, a Spanish academic,  is spending time in London and Oxford and gets drawn into a labyrinthine web of intrigue.   It is an extraordinary narrative, gripping and intellectual and completely fascinating.

Apart from Colum McCann, there are three other Irish authors - William Trevor, Colm Toibin and Peter Murphy.   The latter's book, John the Revelator has to be one of this year's most impressive debut novels.

Check out the list:  I still am and will give you some reviews over the coming weeks!

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Michel Houllebecq has finally won the Prix Goncourt, France's prestigious literary award, for his new novel - released in September -  La Carte et le Territoire, [published in English as the Map and the Territory].   He is nearly one of our own in Ireland having lived here for several years.   He is probably best known for Platform, The Possibility of an Island or Atomised, the last of which won him the Impac Award in 2002.

I read in today's Guardian that Bonnet described autobiographies as 'no more than a pernicious variant of romantic fiction'.   On that basis, I would like to nominate as fiction of the month, Decision Points [by a certain G.W. Bush].

Saturday, November 6, 2010


I apologise for being away so long but I have been ploughing through two massive tomes - Franzen and Pamuk.   For anyone dithering about facing 562 pages of 'Freedom', let me tell you about it.   I have long promoted American authors who seemed the true inheritors of Joyce and Beckett in the face of the nerdy parochialists of Britain.   However, Tom McCarthy has single-handedly resurrected the English scene while the American star seems to be fading fast.

I approached 'Freedom' with not a little trepidation given the enormous hype of it as The Great American Novel but I was encouraged by the first chapter which is admirable and in hindsight a very clever approach by Franzen to his narrative.
'Freedom' is the story of Walter Berglund, his wife, Patty, and their two children, Joey and Jessica, an archetypal middle class present day family living in St Paul, Minnesota.   Patty grew up in New York where her father has a law practice and her mother is a New York State assemblywoman.   She came originally to Minnesota on a sports scholarship and it is at college that she meets Walter and his best friend, Richard, initiating a love triangle that forms the core of the book's story.   Walter is known in the neighbourhood for his 'niceness', a good listener, devoted to his wife.  He grew up with a father a drunk and his mother worn out and physically wrecked, the owners of a rundown motel in Hibbling.   The first chapter, told from the neighbours' point of view, deftly describes Walter and Patty as 'the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven'.  They are politically aware, nature lovers and firm supporters of the liberal creed.

The remainder of the book then is seen from the point of view, chiefly of Patty, but also of Walter, Joey and Richard.   But from such an encouraging start, the characters fail to deepen and Franzen leaves many issues unexplored.   Franzen reportedly said he did not want to appear on the Winfrey show because he wanted his book to  be read by men and not women.   Is this perhaps why he leaves Jessica largely out of the frame?

The concept of  freedom is not dealt with in any depth.   It is referred to occasionally specifically and more often by implication and constantly confused with liberty.    The core of his argument comes about halfway through the book when Joey is visiting the family of his college friend, Jonathan.   Jonathan's father is president of a think tank 'devoted to advocating the unilateral exercise of American military supremacy to make the world freer and safer, especially for America and Israel'  [veritably a Bush-baby!].   In the course of dinner, this man postulates that 'when we discover that our understanding of the world, based on decades of careful empirical study by the very best minds, is in striking accordance with the inductive principle of universal human freedom, it's a good indication that our thinking is at least approximately on track'.   On such thinking is the Homeland built.   Further on then, Franzen writes that Europeans are all-around more rational and their free market tempered by socialism whereas conversation  about rights in America isn't rational.   Did the Enlightenment not travel with the Pilgrims?   The freedom Franzen is talking about is really about the liberties guaranteed under the Constitution.

In his attempt to paint a very broad canvas of America at the turn of the century, Franzen seems to have had a list of issues together with freedom at his side and one can tick the boxes as they appear:  environmental concerns, the war in Iraq, smoking, corporate power, jewish lobby, drugs, but again none dealt with with great thought apart from the environment and that because it becomes Walter's mission to save a particular species of bird.

If you are looking for the Great American Novel, you will be disappointed.   De Lillo has done it better and with greater style in a hundred odd pages.   If you want something to get you through that endless flight to Australia, then this is it.   And, in case you're wondering, Franzen does his usual ending, tidying up all the messy relationships so everyone lives happy ever after.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thank You!

Hi Guys, I went to an amazing swanky book launch this week!   The book in question was the 'Thank You Book' brought out  by the Irish Hospice Foundation.   Essentially, it is a rather beautifully jacketed and elaborate notebook done with various coloured pages, all formatted differently.   Every fourth or fifth page there is a brief, original comment from a huge range of authors - from Heaney and Friel to Mac Anna and Aesop - all on the theme of gratitude.   I think my favourite is Aifric Campbell's 'thank you for quiet company on dark roads'.   A most delightful addition to the Christmas gift market.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Booker Winner

Hey guys, in case any of you missed the news tonight, Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize with The Finkler Question.  Here for you is a quicky review of his book.

The Finkler Question is a captivating and very funny account of one man, Treslove’s, desire to understand what it is to be a Jew while rather wishing he were one himself.   One of the three main characters in the novel is Sam Finkler, a popular philosopher and TV personality, who seems to so embody all the necessary characteristics that Treslove starts to refer to all Jews as Finklers and any oddities as Finklerisms.  

Libor, the third man and the oldest, has just lost the love of his life, his beloved wife, Malkie and his two old school friends, Treslove and Finkler join him for dinner to comfort him and to reminisce.   Following this dinner, Treslove – already in our eyes rather a sad figure, unlucky in love and work – is mugged and his life changes.   His quest for the core of Judaism while being at times highly amusing provides him with no real answers and some might take issue with his characterisation of the typical jew. 

Libor is a Zionist and Finkler is an anti-Zionist, a deliberate ploy by Jacobson giving him the opportunity to explore the current Israeli situation.  It is possible, however, that Jacobson is only using Treslove’s quest as a front for a search for explanation of all relationships in the world especially that of victimhood.   The humour is delightful and brilliantly sustained even bringing a smile on the last page.

While Jacobson’s writing is described as being both mobile and inventive, it lacks the precision and exactness of Kalooki Nights.   At times his verb-less sentences and awkward constructions look as if they need a good editor.   Nevertheless, it is a compelling novel and definite page-turner and an interesting study of male friendships.

I leave you all to judge if you consider it a worthy winner!

Never forget Banville!

After the exhilaration of McCarthy and before broaching the ‘Great American Novel’ [aka Franzen’s Freedom], I thought I would do a quick Banville, so to speak!   Personally I think Banville is not only our greatest living novelist but way out of the league of anyone writing in the UK today.   So long as Banville is writing, Beckett will never be dead.

I picked up Athena which I first read seventeen years ago and am now even more excited by it.   Athena is the third in a loose trilogy [Book of Evidence and Ghosts precede it] in which the narrator, Freddie Montgomery using the pseudonym Morrow, an ex felon, now an art critic, is involved in a shady plot to authenticate a collection of fakes.   One can see why Banville using an alter ego has turned his hand to crime writing as the plot in Athena cleverly hides all its clues in plain sight culminating in a delicious finale.

Morrow certainly has existential issues which make the reader query the substance of any of his narration but Banville handles themes of memory, identity and reality with masterly prose.  The entire novel has an oneiric quality.  The young girl, ‘A’, with whom he has a passionate affair, actually says at one point, ‘we’re just the same aren’t we, the two of us?   Hardly here at all’.   Banville juxtaposes this affair with Morrow's  relationship with an elderly aunt, Corky, thereby deepening the existential ambiguities.

Banville is a profound wordsmith and there are sentences, indeed pages, that one wants to read and reread for their sheer beauty.   [A dictionary in one hand and a Greek mythology in the other would not go astray!]   But, please, if you haven’t read Banville or not this one, do please!!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Booker 2010

Hey Guys!   Your enthusiastic response to my opening sally prompts me to rush ahead with an opening review!   Next Tuesday 12th will see the annual Booker Prize knees-up with the announcement of the winner - and what a mixed bag of goodies is out there for the judges.   Professor Josipovici recently attacked those 'English pseudo-Modernists' - and I think he had the likes of Amis, McEwan et al in mind - but he can surely now rest easy that Tom McCarthy has erupted on the literary scene.   I say erupted because his previous novel, Remainder, got nothing like the exposure it deserved but now with 'C' he must surely triumph and claim the Booker. 

'C' has been described by one critic as steeped in high modernism and continental philosophy.   Certainly it is full of philosophic allusions and learned references that sit comfortably in what is at times a highly amusing novel and most readable.   It is imaginative, innovative and anti-realist.   McCarthy is a precise writer and master of language.   The book itself although described as a historical novel is not concerned with history but with ideas and minds.   One might think the period of the setting is particularly deliberate coinciding as it does with the emergence of modernism at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.   The book is structured in four sections andd the date of the final section set in Alexandria is 1922, the year of publication of Ulysses.   If it was his intention to link himself with the gret modernists, then he has succeeded.

If you still have doubts about reading this undoubted masterpiece, let me tell you a little of the story and no spoiler alert needed.   The first section of thebook holds all the clues to the protagonist, Serge's, development in life and all subsequent events no matter how cataclysmic are drawn from then.   The Carrefax household to which we are introduced is so composed as to allow great freedom to McCarthy in his frenetic intellectual gallop and, at times, wicked sense of humour. The sprawling country house with its several gardens - the Crypt Park, the Mulberry Orchard, the Maze, and so on whose names are carefully chosen - forms the backdrop for its curious inhabitants.   From the splenetic brilliant inventor father obsessed with telegraphy, to his deaf, silk-weaving wife - shades of Ariadne - to Serge's godfather, Widsun, a shadowy figure both benign and malign, and finally, to the elusive Sophie, his older sister who is consumed by and very accomplished in natural science.   She is the most significant person in Serge's life and his relationship with  her is of paramount importance.   The calamitous events involving her lead directly to his later bowel illness and accompanying blurred vision.   Serge spends long hours at night dabbling in telegraphy himself, listening to voices coming over the wires while contemplating the night skies and seeing or imagining shadowy figures in the gardens.   Serge is at once both in and not in the world, not so much suffering any existential angst but, rather, wwith a phenomenological grasp of life around him.   Studying art with his tutor, he experiences great difficulty with perspective viewing the world as flat, an image that is reinforced as an observer flying with the RFC in the war.

It would  be a great disservice to McCarthy to read this other than with great thought and deliberation and it is guaranteed to remain with one long after other Booker titles have faded.

Hey, check out McCarthy's Necronautical Society!   This man is a genius.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My first blog

Welcome to my book review blog where I hope you will share my interest in and love of books.